UCL asked me once again to draw some illustration for their Sustainability Annual Report. This year they decided to go digital and present their results with an interactive illustration. Check out the final result with all the animated elements (designed by Rory Pickering) or download the PDF version.
The Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt has occupied a special place in my heart since I read Andrea Wulf‘s The Invention of Nature last year. Before then the name Humboldt had a vaguely familiar sound, probably because of the many places and species named after him, but I admit that I knew almost nothing about the fascinating man behind it.
Sure enough, he was another privileged white man, but he was a pretty good one at that. More than 200 years ago he openly spoke against slavery, supported the independence of the American colonies and he had little patience for kings and emperors. He preferred to travel the world, cataloguing species, rather than enjoying the comforts of the court and even when on the verge of bankruptcy he always helped young scientists with the little money he had. His work inspired some of my personal heroes, like Darwin and Haeckel, but also writers like Goethe and Thoreau. And yet, he has been almost completely forgotten outside the scientific community. This is probably for many complex reasons, but as Wulf explains mostly because:
He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialised fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise, dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force.
In brief, he didn’t make any single revolutionary discovery but he profoundly changed the way we think about nature . While he was alive, Humboldt was an international celebrity and – in my opinion – an excellent example of the role scientists should have in society. When he died (on this day in 1859) the whole world mourned his loss. This is why I have decided to take some time off my other projects and remember him, in my own way.
I want to encourage others to discover Humboldt and I hope that, maybe, his story could inspire some scientists to ‘crawl’ out of their niches and follow his vision. We badly need more like him.
I have a little announcement to make, so please allow me an unusually long post.
When I decided to become a freelance cartoonist in 2013, after finishing my PhD, I never seriously considered returning to academia. I simply didn’t think there would be an institution that would accommodate – even less support – my strange mix of interests. And probably there wasn’t, until Columbia University created the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience (PSSN for short) with the ambitious goal of creating:
a new paradigm for interdisciplinary university-sponsored research to advance understanding of mind, brain, and behavior, and the social foundations and consequences of new neuroscientific findings.
The good news is that my proposal was accepted! This means that I will have the chance to fully develop this interdisciplinary project and explore how we can use visual narratives to communicate science. I think the proliferation of science-inspired cartoons, animations and webcomics already proves their great potential, but as a scientist I want to go deeper and try to understand the cognitive mechanisms behind visual narrative communication.
Because I think scientists need new communication tools and I believe comics can help us. My hope is that soon they will not be considered just some ‘funny’ way to talk about science but an essential tool for science education. I hope one day to see a professional community of science cartoonists just like the community of science journalists we have today.
Finally – and this is one of the main reasons for me to write this post – I want to make clear that I can’t do this alone. We need interdisciplinary answers for interdisciplinary problems. Luckily, over the past years, I have already met many brilliant people, from many different fields, willing to support me. But I’m sure there are more out there who can contribute to this new emerging field. So, if you are interested in this project, whether you are a scientist, a journalist, a cartoonist, a designer, or any combination of these and much more… please DO get in touch. I’d love to hear from you, what you think and how we can collaborate.
I made this crowd illustration for Ctrl Group, a research and design company working in the field of digital healthcare and health-related technologies. It was really fun to draw because this is such an exciting (and complex) new world. Health apps, personalized genomics, caretaker robots, brain stimulators… Who knows what the future holds? One thing is sure: these guys are going to design the hell out of it! Keep an eye on them.
Hey, did you know that you can now preorder the new issue of LÖK ZINE which is all about cryptozoology? Personally, I contributed with a double illustration about the shadow biosphere (also called ‘weird life’) a controversial theory which argues that since we always look for ‘familiar’ life (composed of the usual stuff: proteins, RNA, DNA) we may have completely missed some non carbon-based microorganisms which could have evolved here on Earth! However unlikely I think it’s a fascinating idea, especially as we start looking for extraterrestrial life which may not look at all as we may expect…
NOTE: the first half of the illustration was inspired by the petroglyphs carved in the so-called ‘desert varnish‘ which has been suggested as a trace of weird life. The second half of course was completely made up (although some sculptures that I have seen at the latest MoMA Picasso exhibition definitely provided some inspiration). Also, I strongly recommend this Mosaic article if you are interested in the ultimate question of “what is life?” (something that has always fascinated me as a biologist).
For a long time I meant to write something about the troubled history of the Human Brain Project, the EU flagship project which promises to create a computer simulation of the human brain by 2023. I am interested in this project partly because computational neuroscience was the subject of my PhD and partly because I think it raises many important questions regarding scientific funding.
(Full disclosure: I am one of the scientists who signed the open letter to ask for revisions of the HBP project).
Hi all, I hope your 2016 is going well. Mine started under the sun of Mexico, where I’m spending a whole month relaxing, reading and working on my next book about the science of sensory perception. Amongst the things I am reading there is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino Sotto Il Sole Giaguaro. A friend first recommended it to me because the titular story is settled in Mexico but I then discovered that also the Calvino stories were meant to be part of a book on the 5 senses (unfortunately he died before writing the stories on touch and vision). Galvanised by this coincidence I decided to start the year with a little illustration based on the story about taste. It is about a troubled couple which, while travelling in Mexico, develops a strange obsession about food and its role in ancient Aztec rituals…
Here is a little excerpt from the original story (sorry English-speaking folks, you can look up the translation if you want: Under the Jaguar Sun):
“Non Mangi?” mi chiese Olivia che sembrava concentrata solo nel gustare il suo piatto ed era invece come al solito atttentissima, mentre io ero rimasto assorto guardandola. Era la sensazione dei suoi denti nella mia carne che stavo immaginando, e sentivo la sua lingua sollevarmi contro la volta del palato, avvolgermi di saliva, poi spingermi sotto la punta dei canini. Ero seduto li davanti a lei ma allo stesso tempo mi pareva che una parte di me, o tutto me stesso, fossi contenuto nella sua bocca, stritolato, dilaniato fibra a fibra. Situazione non completamente passiva in quanto mentre venivo masticato da lei sentivo anche che agivo su di lei, le trasmettevo sensazioni che si propagavano dalle papille della bocca per tutto il corpo, che ogni sua vibrazione ero io a provocarla: era un rapporto reciproco e completo che ci coinvolgeva e travolgeva.
Quick commercial announcement: I made these fireworks postcards to celebrate the new year. You can buy them in two color variants professionally printed from Thortful, or get the exclusive screen-printed and hand-cut edition from my online shop. They make a nice present for all your nerdy friends and they’re also a simple way to support your dear artist while he’s working on a new book 🙂
PS: I’m going to be drawing in Mexico for a while (because why not?) and I hope to post something from there, but if not I wish you all a happy new year and some non-religious humanist holidays.