Digital Nature. (Illustration)

By Miller, Stephen R. | Sierra, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Digital Nature. (Illustration)


Miller, Stephen R., Sierra


Wielding his computer's stylus like a high-tech Creator, David Fierstein brings forth waters in a dry landscape. The lazy river he cuts through a forest does more than add scenery to his 3-D illustration: It divides two representations of forest fire management. On one side, dense underbrush built up after years of fire prevention allows a blaze to leap to the crowns of trees, spraying burning fuels across a fire line. On the other side, where controlled bums from previous years have eliminated the underbrush, fire is confined to the forest floor. To complete his pictorial explanation of why thick underbrush creates fires like those that ravaged the western United States last summer, Fierstein adds arrows to show the direction of convection, wind currents, and how fire progresses from one stage to another.

"It would be difficult to set up a photo shoot that would show all of these things happening in one shot," says Fierstein. "You can't tell a photographer, `Just move that forest fire over a bit to the left, and that river a little bit to the right, please.'"

Scientific illustration's strength is that it depicts rather than documents. Ann Caudle, director of the University of California at Santa Cruz's scientific-illustration program, elaborates using a common seashell. "If ten illustrators accurately illustrate the same shell, there would be ten different, nuanced approaches, each meant to emphasize some particular aspect of the shell."

Illustration's ability to manipulate and highlight the intricacies of nature makes it a powerful tool, especially for bringing to light some of the biggest health and environmental news stories.

When West Nile virus arrived in the United States in 1999, seven New Yorkers died, and infectious disease became front-page news. Some scientists posited that the virus's spread was but one of global warming's effects on infectious disease. To bring home the larger story, illustrator Bryan Christie created a world map showing disease outbreaks during the last El Nino, while a line diagram explained how mild winters and dry springs facilitated the spread of West Nile virus.

Some of the most important scientific stories take years to develop, and the illustrations that accompany them are no different.

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