Science drawings at the Royal Society

If you think about a modern scientist doing his job, you will probably imagine him/her operating complex and expensive cutting edge machines and computers, characterizing materials and structures through a SEM, and producing and disseminating evidences to support their theories and express their results in form of pictures, graphs and images obtained using sophisticated digital cameras and manipulated with innovative softwares. There is a good chance they will use a laser or, even better, a 3D printer.

For the youngest audiences in particular, it is very difficult to imagine that there was a time, when a scientist had to be good at drawing, or at least at finding someone able to do it in his place.

Early biologist, botanists, ethologists, and even chemists, were forced to use their artistic skills to understand and explain the rules of the world that they were trying to unlock. Some of them weren’t so scientific, in a modern sense, at the contrary their works are very imaginative, but they are still interesting, as the following books illustrations.

An image of the human forms (“The pearl of philosophy”) by Gregorius Reish, 1508. The book is a encyclopedic compendium of contemporary knowledge written for university students. Gregor (Gregorius) Reish (1467-1525) was a Carthusian monk and teacher.
A traveller surprised by a dragon. Illustration from “Helveticus Itinera Alpina tria…” by Johan Jakob Scheuczer 1723. In this book Swiss naturalist Scheuchzer (1672-1733) gives an account of his travels in the Swiss Alps and recounts tales of reported sightings of dragon-like creatures supposedly encountered by travellers.
A “dragon” made from fish parts. Illustration from “Serpentum et draconum historie (History of serpents and dragons)” by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640. In his book, Aldrovandi, provided detailed descriptions of real snakes while debunking fake “monsters” stiched together from other animal parts.

The changes in the way scientists produce images and share them within their community and the public, was the subject of a day of hands on activities and lecture at the Royal Society, last Saturday, the 25th of October. The title of the event was “The Big Draw: Drawing Science” and was part as The Big Draw festival,

Young children, and curious adults as me, were “pushed” to take inspiration from rare scientific illustrations pulled from the Royal Society archives, exploring areas where science and art overlap.

Illustration of grief from “The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals” by Charles Darwin 1872. In this book, Darwin attempts to trace the animal origins of human characteristic and emotions including grief, anxiety, joy and despair.
Specimens of foraminifera (single celled marine organisms with shells) by Henry Bowman Brady (1835-1891), naturalist and pharmacist.
Lacerta gecko by William Clift, 1816. Illustration produced for the paper “Some account of the feet of those animals whose progressive motion can be carried on in opposition to gravity”, by Everard Home, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol 106 (1816) pp 149-155. The Lizard specimen was procured by Sir Joseph Banks, apparently from Java.
Spectra from light shone trough prisms. Optical diagrams showing light shone trough prisms and the resulting optical spectral patterns. Plate from the monograph: “Merkwurdige phanomene an und durch verschiedene prismen: zur richtigen wurdigung der Newton’schen und der von Goethe’schen farbenlehre (remarkable phenomena at and trough different prisms to correct Newton’s and Goethe’s theories of colours)” by Johann Friedrich Christian Werneburg (Nurember, 1817).
Hummingbirds, by William Matthew Hart, 1887. “Helianthea Osculans” Buff-tailed Starfrontllet (left) and 2Heliodoxa Xanthogonys” Guiana brilliant (right). Illustration from “A monograph of the Trochilidoe, or family of hummingbirds: supplement…completed after the athors death”, by Bowdler Shape, part V (London 1887). The posthumous supplement to Gould’s 1861 monograph of hummingbirds.
Observations of aphids, and a glass bead microscopes, by Antoni van Leeuwenhook (1632-1723). A red chalk drawing wich accompanied a letter sent to the Royal Society on the 26 October 1700, containing notes on insects observed by Dutch microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhook. Leeuwenhook investigated the structure of muscles and plants; the shape of crystals in grains of sand and much more. He was the first to describe microscopic organism living in water. We know them today as bacteria and protozoa. A replica single lens microscope, of the tipe developed by Leeuwenhook. The instrument’s small lens could magnify up to 250 times.

In addition to the importance that science illustrations have in documenting the path and development of some of the most important scientific discoveries and theories, they also suggest the hypothesis that drawing complex natural structure precisely, may help to better understand the details, and how they are related and interconnected to each other, forming a whole. In other words, producing your own images you will learn more about what you are studying.


A bean sprouting, by Marcello Malpighi FRS (1628-1694). This read chalk drawing shows the life a bean from germination to a seedling and features in Malpighi’s manuscript “Anatome Plantarum”, 1675. Malpighi was a physician and experimental biologist. Along with his contemporaries Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhook, he was a pioneer of the microscope.
Ammonite and other fossils. Illustrations in the “Posthumous works of Robert Hooke” edited by Richard Waller, 1705. Robert Hooke FRS (1635-1703) natural philosopher, architect and polymath, was the Royal Society’s first curator of experiments.
Letters to the Royal Society, by Sir Isaac newton (1642-1727). Newton began to write to the Royal Society in 1672 outlining the main result of his optical experiments. These included his work on light and colours published in the “Philosophica Transactions” and this original drawing of the reflecting telescope.

Because children like drawing, involving them in making their own scientific illustration, copying original drawings, complete animals half drawn, or building mosaics with the basic crystals shapes, can be both educational and fun!

Children and their carers enjoyed a dedicated area with activities and workshops, try their hands at drawing animals, making their on pop-up book, or having a dinosaur named after them.

Personally, I found the activities very interesting and it would be a good idea to carried them out in a school, to be used in support to the science curriculum or during after school or summer club.

James Mckay is a UK based illustrator, writer and designer, who entertained the kids and made personalised fantastic dinosaurs.
One of the fantastic dinosaur created by James Mckay.
One of the children works of art inspired by the material of the exhibition and the histories told by the experts.

During the afternoon two lectures took place, in one of the beautiful rooms of the Carlton House Terrace.

The first one was lead by historian Dr Sachiko Kusukawa, tutor and Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

The focus of the speech was on the intersections of art and science in the 17th and 18th centuries. Professor Kusukawa explored sketches, engraving and paintings that gave background to some of the images on display, and explained how they were used by scientist to guide their studies.

The second lecture, was more informal, and I really enjoyed it. The title was “Dynamic collaborations”, and was lead by Brian Sutton, crystallographer and professor of Molecular Biophysics at the King’s College of London, and glass artist Shelley James, originally trained in textiles, at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and then deciding to explore the themes of perception and reality from a more personal perspective, she studied printmaking at the University of the West of England. This lead to developing new techniques for encapsulating prints in glass with support from the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and Arts Council England. The symmetry and quasi-symmetry of crystals inspired Shelley to produce her 2D and 3D glass works. Professor Sutton and Shelley engaged the public with a conversation about how they ended up working together and what the differences and similarities in their vision of crystals are.

Shelley James during her speech with some of the models she uses to get inspired.
Shelley James 1
Essential Symmetry serie: Truncated Octahedron. In Greek philosophy the Octahedron is associated with the air element. Shelley James/blown by James Devereux and Kate Huskie. June 2014, hot glass and print. Image by Ester Segarra c2014

In a passionate and inspiring explanation professor Sutton told us the story of the Penroses tyles and the discover of a very special type of minerals that lead to a very important Nobel price for Chemistry in 2011 . In fact in 1984 the team of Professor Schechtman found that a crystal of a rapidly cooled alloy of aluminum and manganese,  was showing a 5 fold  symmetry (the so called “forbidden symmetry”). The team’s description of the atomic structure of a metal alloy ultimately forced scientists to redefine the term “crystal.”

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognizes the discovery of quasicrystals, in which atoms are ordered over long distances but not in the periodically repeating arrangement of traditional crystals.

A new category of crystals whose patterns don’t repeat in the traditional way.

Nature never stops to surprise us!


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