At the last St. Louis Idea Market, Scott Matthews from XPLANE had us all create a visual explanation of how a toaster works. Among many observations I made from the exercise, key was how different people interpreted what was meant by “how a toaster works.” Some of us took it to mean “How do you make toast with a toaster” while others approached it from the “how does a toaster function” point of view. (It was pretty easy to pick out engineers in the crowd!) Scott has posted the scanned cards on Flickr.
Photographer Volker Steger gave a similar visual story telling challenge to past Nobel laureates in the article and photo layout Nobel Notations in the December 2006 issue of Discover magazine, in which he asked these great minds to explain their prize winning achievements using crayons and a piece of poster board.
The scientists’ artwork draws out unexpected and often deeply personal details. Curl’s depiction of the buckyball’s creation hints at a dispute over the naming of the molecule. He favored “soccerene” for its soccer-ball shape, but his British cowinner, Sir Harold Kroto, nixed that idea, arguing that in England the game is called football and that the molecule ought to be called “footballene.” (In the end, it was named for architect Buckminster Fuller’s celebrated geodesic domes.)
If you would like to your own hand at a visual explanation for a scientific idea – and possibly win a prize – check out the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.