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The Pros and Cons of Putting Happy Faces on Molecules

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I have a terrible habit of putting faces on just about everything I draw, whether it be atoms, bacteria, or personified evolution. I’ve often wondered if this does a disservice to my science art subjects, but I continue to do it because I feel like a well-placed friendly face can make people so much more comfortable with the subject matter.

My target audience is usually science-phobes, people who see words like molecule and run for the hills. I sometimes try to lure such readers and lessen their anxiety with a terribly unscientific happy face. But at the same time, I’m sure, I’m angering the traditional science lover who doesn’t need those grins on all the microbes I draw.

I recently found myself drawing a water molecule for a teacher guide I’ve been commissioned to write and illustrate. For a project like this, I usually put on my ultra-professional hat and stick to the facts. But I couldn’t help myself. After drawing a regular ol’ water molecule, I found myself adding circles for eyes and a tiny upturned mouth. I found great amusement in my new character.


While my and a few select others’ entertainment are clearly the pros, what are the cons here? Will I be making people take science less seriously? Will I annoy? Or worst of all, will my misplaced happy faces lead to misconceptions about the natural world and its relative lack of elated visages?

One also must consider the falsehoods inherent in representing some science concepts to begin with. Representing atoms as colorful balls this way is a serious oversimplification and can lead to gross misunderstandings about atomic structure, such as just how much empty space atoms are composed of. So the happy face is not the only potentially confusing part of this diagram, and it least it is very clearly a joke.

I suppose it’s all about knowing your audience, but tell me, do you think happy faces have their place in science communication? Is it ever a professional setting? Or is it just for admitted goofballs like myself?

Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What's in Your Genes. You can find more of work at Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Acoyauh2 4:22 pm 04/10/2013

    In my opinion, seeing this sort of cartoon-like illustrations gives the initial impression of basic level science, entry level… which I read anyways since I’m kitten-class curious on reading material in general. It just sets my expectations that I’ll be reading an “Introduction To ____” type of text; maybe even add the “for Dummies” at the end if the characters are really silly.

    I guess it just depends on what your goal is; if you mainly care that the newb crowd doesn’t ‘run for the hills’ regardless of what more science-minded potential readers might think, then you’re ok. If you do want the science-literate to take an interest too, then you may have to add some geekier-looking graphs or tables to the visual mix.

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  2. 2. dadster 2:48 pm 04/11/2013

    Now I know why Gods have faces and forms in all religion !

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  3. 3. RSD_1983 12:11 pm 04/15/2013

    “Or is it just for admitted goofballs like myself?”


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  4. 4. jack.123 5:20 am 04/24/2013

    Are there unhappy molecules?

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