Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Why do pigeons bob their heads? Do squirrels know where they hide their nuts? And other questions answered in this new art-meets-science book.
Designer and illustrator Julia Rothman grew up on City Island, a small island at the top of the Bronx. “It’s like a mile and a half long and a mile wide," she tells me. "Everybody knows everybody. It’s like living in a small town in the middle of New York City."
These days, the co-editor of The Where, the Why, and the How—a new art-meets-science book in which 75 artists illustrate quirky, murky mysteries of science—lives in Brooklyn. Co-editors Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe, partners at the design firm Also, live in Chicago. This is their fanciful take on the science textbook of yore, and scientific illustration as art object: the questions, and their still-debated answers—supplied by researchers at the likes of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, Yale, and the National Institutes of Health—are brought to unusual, imaginative life by well-known artists and illustrators.
The design trio’s experiences living in big cities, Rothman says, informed the list of "big life mysteries" they came up with for the project.
Case in point is Question #60: Do squirrels remember where they bury their nuts? (Yes, it turns out, but they can also smell them.) Squirrels create mental maps of their nut caches every fall, writes Lucia Jacobs, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley; the brain of the gray squirrel actually gets bigger during the season, probably to help accommodate the need for increased memory. New York-based artist Aaron Meshon’s tongue-in-cheek illustration depicts the squirrel in Godzilla-like dimensions, holding a map:
Each entry is a two-page spread, in which a working scientist gives a simple, boiled-down answer to a complex question that’s paired with an illustration. Not every answer is a solid theory; some answers are still in debate. “The idea was to have both the artist and the scientist wondering about the answer to the question,” Rothman says. “We were inspired by the scientific posters from the fifties and earlier—they weren’t really complete, since the scientists didn’t know the answers to everything. We wanted to let the artist fill in the gaps of what they thought the answer could be.”
The genius of the book is its brevity and wit, and the room it leaves for imagination.
Rothman, Volvovski, and Lamothe organized the entries by size, addressing big-picture questions first—like #24: Can evolution outpace climate change? (Answer: For most species, probably not.)
and #34: What is the circadian clock? (Your jet-lagged body already knows the answer to this.)
—before tackling smaller, more tangible everyday mysteries, like #59, Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?
“A lot of the entries are things that the scientists came up with themselves, things that are specific to their work,” Rothman says. “But the pigeon one is definitely because of where we live.” (As for the pigeons, they bob their heads to see better — it's actually their bodies that move).
So if you find yourself on a stroll through the park wondering if trees talk to each other (#49),
or in a crowded subway car wondering where the next pandemic will come from (#65),
you might want to seek out Rothman’s homage to the science textbook of her youth. You’ll find that it’s the artist’s interpretation juxtaposed against the scientist’s—and the mercurial, still-up-in-the-air quality of much scholarly debate—that’s truly intriguing.