'The Where, the Why and the How' illustrates science

You'll notice something when you first pick up "The Where, the Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science."

The book has some heft to it. And it has the look and feel of a book you might have stowed in your high school locker.

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"We wanted it to feel like an old, vintage textbook, even the texture of the cover," says co-author Jenny Volvovski. "We wanted it to feel like something from our youth." 

But Volvovski and co-authors Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe — the three are partners in Also, a Chicago- and New York-based design firm — don't mimic those dull science books of old. On the contrary, they make "The Where, the Why and the How" come alive through 75 illustrations by some of today's most gifted artists.

"It's more of an art book than a science book," Rothman says. "We're more curators of art than science. We're artists and designers ourselves."

"We conceived it as a combination of the two," Volvovski adds. "The inspiration was this melding of art and science. On the cover was a mysterious scientific diagram. That was kind of the inspiration."

The authors came up with 75 topics and questions and found some 50 experts — psychologists, research librarians, wildlife biologists, research biogeochemists — to whom they posed questions about some of science's mysteries. Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk? Why don't animals' muscles atrophy during hibernation? What determines the size of a primate social group?

From those questions, it's obvious this isn't a book aimed at youngsters. "It's like a book that we wanted," Lamothe says. "So I'm thinking (a target group of people in their) 20s and 30s. A lot of the writing can be pretty dense, so it's not a kids book."

The experts answered the questions — or sometimes added questions of their own in the text. Then the answers were sent off to the artists, who had a free rein to illustrate the text as they saw fit.

Volvovski says they cast a wide net for the artists to get a range of styles. "Comic artists, graphic artists, fine artists," she says. "We tried to pair artists with the science that worked well with their style. If someone drew cartoon animals a lot, we gave them a question about animals."

"Art is a byproduct of science, illustrating new ideas," Lamothe explains. "These mysteries create these really cool visuals. ... (It seems) the scientists are all investigating mysteries, and that intersection of art and science worked really well."

Some of the illustrations just jumped out at them, the authors say.

"There were so many that we were thrilled about, especially the ones where the artists had a lot of fun and didn't look at the accurate science," Rothman says. "They didn't do research, they just did it as they imagined it would look like. Like Marc Bell. He did plate tectonics. He drew these cartoony things sliding back and forth."

Volvovski is partial to Gilbert Ford's illustration that goes with the question, "Why do we blush?"

"It captured the essence of blushing for me," she says.

The art was only half the equation, of course. Rothman says they had to make sure the text was readable to the average person, and Volvovski adds that they had a science librarian look over the material and check for accuracy. Of course, this being science, things can change. And they have.

"What we liked about the questions, since they are mysteries and are evolving, a lot of them have updated answers," she says. "The Higgs boson question (has changed), and there are new theories about how the moon got here. The whole idea of it is it's all evolving."

William Hageman is a Tribune lifestyle reporter.

"The Where, the Why and the How"

By Matt Lamothe, Julia Rothman and Jenny Volvovski, Chronicle, 168 pages, $24.95

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