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Tools Change But Creative People Are a Constant

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

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Once upon a time, I wrote about five reasons your camera won’t steal my job. In short, the reasons were:

1. Photography can’t capture small things
2. Photography can’t capture distant things
3. Photography can’t capture extinct things
4. Photography can emphasize the wrong things
5. Photography is just one tool of many to master

At the heart of that post was a concept that I didn’t state outright, but an astute commenter did:

the medium may die but the creators live on…

I was aware of 3D scanning and modeling technology at the time, but at that point, good scanning was immensely expensive and just not feasible on a wide scale necessary to document fossils and artifacts. From where I sat, scientific illustrators were still the best means of editing the information in an illustration to convey only what was scientifically important. Omitting extraneous color data, fixing small preservational cracks or being able to combine information from multiple specimens were all ways in which people working with pencils and pens could top people working with sophisticated lenses. But now, experts working with 3D scanning technology can produce this, and I’m forced to reevaluate what advantage a traditional illustrator has over the folks working with 3D scanning and modeling technology:

Tiktaalik 3D Render by IVL

Virtually every detail of the type specimen of Tiktaalik roseae is visible in this rendering made from 3D scanning data. Image courtesy of the Idaho Virtualization Lab

Now, this is not a whiny post about how illustrators are facing extinction along with the dinosaurs we so faithfully keep alive by breathing life into bags of bones. Rather, this is a post about the immense opportunity stretching out before us if we are willing to learn new tools. True, our old standbys – the technical pen, carbon dust, and graphite pencils – may begin to gather dust, but I’m not convinced that we should pack our studios up and head for the hills. 3D scanning and modeling tools are here to stay and they are the future. And what a future it is!

Consider this: back in the “good old days” (defined as “good” only if you were a handful of rich, dominant countries representing privilege and entitlement), building a world-class research collection was as simple as scraping up some money, donning an Indiana Jones hat and traveling to some far-flung location to dig up the most unusual, interesting loot you could lay your little hands on. The spoils were transferred to the great museums and research institutions of the world, concentrated in a few select countries. The upside was that these countries had the interest, the funds, and the knowledge to care for rare antiquities. The downside was if you ever visit the Parthenon in Greece, for example, you will not be able to see the famous Parthenon frieze as you might expect; for that, you’d have to travel to the British National Museum in London. Doh.

section of Parthenon frieze

section of the Parthenon frieze from the north wall, part of the British Museum's collection (image courtesy of Twospoonfuls)

Without getting into an argument about whether our archaeological and paleontological treasures are best kept in their potentially less stable countries of origin or former imperial powers, the fact is that 3D scanning technology makes much of this dilemma moot, at least for treasures that are currently being uncovered with our 21st century protocols. And to the extent that scientific illustrators can jump on the bandwagon and learn this technology, we have the opportunity to be a part of the most expansive democratization and preservation of our earth’s heritage ever. That’s quite an opportunity if you pride yourself on making science accessible.

The Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at Idaho State University in Pocatello, ID is one such hub of transformation. Under the leadership of Dr. Herb Maschner, a team of highly skilled technicians, artists, and researchers is creating a collection of virtual museums: databases of bones and fossils in the round, available to anyone, anywhere with an internet connection. Armed with 3D scanners and modeling programs, they are systematically cataloging thousands of bones and artifacts.

In the case of Tiktaalik roseae, which they scanned recently at the request of the researchers who discovered it, their work is no small contribution to science, as the fossils will ultimately be returned to their country of origin, Canada, when the research on their anatomy is completed. Lest my Canadian co-blogger cry out in protest that Canada is far from an inconvenient destination, I might add that once returned, they will likely be put on display in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the capitol of the far-north territory where they were discovered.Iqaluit, NU While this is a critical empowering move for the people of Nunavut, it does make the original fossil material slightly out of reach of most of the world without significant funding. As of this writing, flights to Iqaluit from major cities in the US hover around $1600, but good luck to you if you’re looking to fly from the “other side of the pond” ($4300 from London), or China ($2500 from Beijing), or a smaller US. city ($2100 from Austin, TX). So the prospect of having the scanned specimens available online for anyone to manipulate in three dimensions is pretty thrilling. Not only that, but as 3D printing technology becomes more sophisticated and affordable, exact replicas will be easy to print if the data are made available.

I often get asked by students interested in science illustration what job opportunities are out there if they take the time to get an education in a field as specialized as ours. My answer is this: if you can get excited about 3D modeling and animation, do it. The most innovative and exciting projects are being done with 3D software today. It is unquestionably the future of visual science communication.

The Idaho Virtualization Lab’s Virtual Museums
Animated 3D Scans of Tiktaalik roseae

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

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

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  1. 1. Percival 12:03 am 02/4/2014

    Yabbut, your job isn’t to be a camera, 3D scanner/printer, or whatever whizbang imaging tech comes along next.

    You’re expected to portray what’s *relevant” to an article, to save an author paragraphs- to *illustrate* what an author wants to convey by packing those potential paragraphs into an image.

    Now, let’s be clear; often you have to “fudge” an image by adding details or overall structure that could never be captured with any imaging tech no matter how sophisticated. Those of us who grew up with Chesley Bonestell and his ilk understand that and are willing to suspend our disbelief (the artist wasn’t there, they made that up!) for the sake of grasping a point with the immediacy that only visual imagery can convey to our monkey-ish brains.

    There will always necessarily be artifice in art, but the tools require imagination to be used properly.

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  2. 2. andyfarke 12:03 pm 02/5/2014

    As a working scientist, I am fairly good with manipulating CT scans and the like, but I completely agree that for many things you just need an artist. Case in point: for the reconstruction of our baby Parasaurolophus, we commissioned Ville Sinkkonen to restore the complete skull. We had some nice CT scans, but to take care of distortion, fill in missing stuff, and generate an image that represented the idealized, complete skull, there really was no substitute for working with someone like Ville. (you can see the results here.

    As for digitization making fossils more accessible…this is one of those things that is great in concept but so far mostly lacking in execution. In my experience, very, very few museums or researchers have made any effort to make genuinely useful and truly interactive specimens available on line. (3D PDFs, in-browser viewers and rotating movies are a start…but from a practical research standpoint are not terribly informative due to their low resolution and limited display/analysis features) Some of this is a technology issue–bandwidth for massive data transfers is expensive, and it’s labor intensive to make reliable viewers that work across platforms, and then get the data into them. Some of this is that many researchers never return the data to the museums that loaned the specimens, so the data end up sitting on a hard drive. Some of this is that even if specimens are scanned, and the data are reposited, there is no way to find out that the scans exist (how many museum databases record this information?). And some of this is that folks are paranoid that if the digital files are available, museums will be cut out of a revenue stream for reproductions (somewhat justifiable on the one hand, but on the other hand few specimens actually have commercial viability as casts). In any case, it’s a multifaceted situation that has resulted in 10 years of museums and researchers announcing a digital revolution that just hasn’t happened.

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