Early on during the pandemic I learnt about Mary Wortley Montagu, who pioneered variolation in England (inoculating her own son) after observing the practice in Turkey. This was almost 80 years before Edward Jenner, who I have always been taught was the ‘inventor’ of the cowpox vaccine. Yet another case of women being overlooked or deliberately written out of the history of science.
It was too late to include her in the Massive Science Tarot, but I decided to draw her portrait nonetheless. Dan Samorodnitsky wrote her story for Massive. Unfortunately, her views on slavery were not as enlightened, but I still hope she can provides some hope in these difficult times. May we defeat COVID soon and get back to fighting more important battles.
It has been a while since I did a drawing just for my own pleasure.
Since I started a new job in September I spend most of my days drawing, and I couldn’t be happier about it! However, as my creative work has become intertwined with my job the goal has inevitably shifted from pleasure to efficiency. I find myself thinking “what would the fastest way” to draw something, rather than my ‘favourite’ way (which is usually also the most elaborate). Drawing has become a mean to an end. I’ve also started drawing digitally because it makes things easier to edit, but sometime I really the meditative quality of drawing on paper, where every mark is there to stay. There is no undo button. Especially as I find myself wishfully tapping on the page whenever I make a mistake!
When I made the transition, I promised myself I would slow down on freelance work. Save my free time for personal projects. But to be honest, after 8 hours at work, it’s difficult to find projects that excite me enough to use my the desk at home.
One of the few exceptions is observational drawing, which I picked up back in the Summer, when I was spending a few weeks in upstate NY. It reminded how much I used to love sketching from life, without the pressure of ‘communicating something’ or being ‘creative’. It forces you to slow down and pay attention to the tiniest details (like the marks made by insects on a leaf).
Around the same time I was also reading How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, one of the most inspiring books of the year (seriously, go and get yourself a copy). Odell talks a lot about birdwatching and ‘Bioregionalism’ as a form of resistance in our attention-driven economy. Focusing on the here and now as a space of “critical refusal”. It immediately struck me how observational drawing could serve a very similar function.
So I decided to do more of it. Over the past few weeks (as away to avoid the news mayhem) I slowly inked this composite drawing, based on my Summer observations around a creek in Woodstock, NY (with the Bartleby’s quote as subtle homage to Doing Nothing). I added a bit of digital color but otherwise it was good old fashioned pen on paper, it was one of the most satisfying drawings I made in a long time.
I hope to find the time for more of these, and if I’m happy with the results I may even post some here. Stay tuned and take some time ‘do nothing’, in your own way.
Over the Summer, between the end of my postdoc and starting my new job (did I mention I have a new amazing job as multimedia producer for the Zuckerman Institute?) I have been drawing a short story for ERCcomics: The (over)Exciting Brain Zoo.
I have been following ERCcomics with fanboy excitement since its first inception (pairing ERC-funded researchers with internationally renowned cartoonists and give them complete creative freedom? Yes, please!) but because of other commitments I never found the time to draw a story for them. This year, when I heard that a former colleague was applying as one of the scientists, I decided that the timing couldn’t be better and I applied as an artist asking to be paired up with him.
Since I was already somewhat familiar with Koen research I was able to take a bit more creative freedom with the comic. For a long time I have been wanting to experiment more with fiction, finding ways to tell stories about science that are not just educational but also entertaining. As usual I decided to turn the brain itself into the setting but this time I have also tried to developed characters that are not just a prop to present the science, but also embody different approaches to the study of the brain.
In the story the theoretical knowledge of a rich collector, clashes with the more practical expertise of his workers, who lack the ‘academic’ credentials but have often developed a very nuanced understanding of nature. In short, yes , t’s a comic about inhibitory neurons, but it’s also a subtle critique of scientific practice and reductionist modelling in neuroscience.
The relaunch issue of Science for the People magazine is amongst us! It’s printed and being shipped to our Kickstarter supporter as I write this, so I can finally share my cover illustration (and there is more in the inside).
It was a daunting task to choose an image for the cover. The topics covered within the issue are so varied and all seem so important which didn’t feel right to pick one for the cover. I opted instead for a celebratory illustration, which tries to capture the spirit of revitalization with an explosion of different flowers/ideas. I imagined the seeds of radical science laying dormant in offices, laboratories and classrooms around the world for decades, and I hope this magazine will be a platform for them to grow and pollinate each others.
You’re still in time to get your own copy (and future issues as well) by subscribing to the magazine. And if you are an illustrator interested in working for us please let me know, I’m still looking for for contributors for the next issue ‘The Science We Need’.
PS: Also, I still haven’t received my deck, but you can start to see pictures of the Massive#sciencetarot online and they look great! These are the two main project that kept me busy last year so it’s great to see them coming to fruition.
This month, after more than 2 years since I illustrated the 1st card I have finally finished the Massive Science Tarot deck. It has been quite a journey, and I have discovered so many amazing scientists along the way! It’s definitely one of the projects I’m most proud of (on the same level as my books) and I can’t wait to see it printed in June.
The World represents an ending to a cycle of life, a pause in life before the next big cycle beginning with the fool. It is an indicator of a major and inexorable change, of tectonic breadth.
In our Science Tarot The World depicts a futuristic woman crossing a circular wreath of DNA, looking behind her to the past, while her body moves forward to the future. In her hands are scientific tools which she uses to read and modify her own genome. It represents the potential of humans to take control of their own evolution (for good or for worse).
Back in December Science for the People put out a call for proposals for the relaunch issue of the historic magazine, that went extinct in 1989. That call received more than 100 submissions from all over the world, proving that there is a real hunger for a place to discuss radical science ideas. An amazing group of writers, editors and fact checkers is now working on the first collection of articles and we are doing a kickstarter to bring you the printed edition that this project deserves.
I am working on some of the artwork for the magazine and – if I can get personal for a moment – I can say that nothing could make me more proud than seeing my illustrations associated with this organization. Science for the People came into my life just as I was growing frustrated and disillusioned with scientific research. Science communication has been my main relief valve since I completed my PhD but, eventually, I realized that no amount of communication will solve the biggest challenges we face in science today. Because the problem is not just in the way science is presented or perceived by the public, but embedded in scientific practice itself. The sexism, the privilege, the increasingly profit-oriented research model… These are the kind of issues that Science for the People is planning to address and I am completely in awe of all the people (scientists and not) who are mobilizing under this banner.
There are only 10 days left to support the kickstarter. If you have the means please consider donating to this cause: not for me or my illustrations but for all the activists who are working on this!
At the end of the month (February 28 – March 1) the Center for Science and Society is hosting an interdisciplinary conference on Narratives in the Natural Sciences and Humanities in NYC. I had the pleasure to be part of the organizing committee and I am really looking forward to the great lineup of speakers.
I was also tasked with the difficult job of coming up with an illustration for the event. We wanted something that could represent the universality of narratives, without being tied to a specific period, format or genre. We eventually settled on this concept of narratives as ‘building blocks’ of human culture, which in my mind was a reference to Jerome Bruner’s Actual Minds, Possible Worlds(one of my favourite books on the subject).
This wasn’t an easy decision and I still really like some the other sketches I made for the event. Hopefully one I will have a chance to finish them all.
Here is a sneak peek into my sketchbook, which one would you pick?
I have been teaching the Citizen Science program at Bard College for the best part of January. It was an excellent way to start the year and a great learning experience, but the class schedule didn’t leave me much time to draw. However, while my students were busy doing their final assessment I made this quick summary of the class for them! It’s also my first fully-digital drawing (I got a new toy for Christmas). Much more to come in the next few months… happy 2019 everyone!
Send us your proposal by Monday, January 14. We accept proposals for features, opinions, book and media reviews, and artwork. Please keep proposals to 300 words and image uploads to 20 mb total.
Also, I’m acting as art director for the next issue, so if you don’t have a proposal but you are an illustrator interested in doing some pro-bono work on topics of science, engineering or political organising, shoot me an email. For now we are all volunteers working on this on a zero-budget, but the plan is to make this a beautiful sustainable magazine and I’m putting together a roster of potential collaborators.
Earlier this month the kickstarter run by Massive Science to produce a Women of Science Tarot Deck (illustrated by yours truly) was successfully funded! This means that for the rest of the Winter I’m going to spend most of my weekends drawing science-themed symbolic illustrations, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Now, some of you may ask (and have asked) “why are you mixing science and tarot? Isn’t Tarot all about magic/occult stuff?” Initially, when my friend Nadja suggested the idea I asked myself the same question. Like most people I associated ‘tarots’ with divination but – as I have later learnt – the tarot actually started as a playing cards deck, used since the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe. In fact, in Italy we still use the 4 tarot suits (spades, wands, coins and cups) as regular playing cards, without any magical associations. Only later, in the 18th century, the tarot cards began to be used for divination and magic.
Part of me is just really excited about updating this ancient tradition for our modern scientific culture. After all, the cards meaning evolved throughout history and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to do it once more. But, as a science communicator, I also think this is a great opportunity to reach a whole new audience. In particular, I have been thinking a lot lately about how scientists should engage with spirituality (especially after reading this fascinating comic by Jordan Collver and watching this conversation on Stated Casually). I grew up atheist (or religious-free, as I prefer to say) and I always had a pretty aggressive attitude toward any spiritual beliefs. But I now understand the value of a more neutral/grey zone (or ‘decompression chambers‘ to use Jon Perry’s beautiful metaphor). If we require people to reject their whole spiritual identity in order to even start reading about science then we are excluding a whole LOT of readers! A more inclusive science communication should provide some in-between spaces where people feel comfortable exploring science, without feeling immediately challenged or attacked.
I really hope that a science Tarot could play this kind role: a space for people who do not traditionally identify as ‘science geeks’ to engage with scientific concepts in a playful and non-judgemental way. And also, a good opportunity to challenge some stereotypes of what science ‘should be’ and what scientists ‘look like’ by celebrating the pioneering women scientists included in the deck.