Science in Mind

What does science smell like? Dry-erase markers.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/2011 file photo
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/2011 file photoGlass walls covered with scientific scribbling at the Broad Institute, a Cambridge genomics research center.

Most people associate science with technical equipment: goggles, lasers, microscopes, or knee-length lab coats. For me, science really can’t be done without a far more basic piece of equipment: the dry erase marker.

Practically every time I visit a laboratory or scientist’s office, I see a white board filled with diagrams and sketches. In the sleekest new biomedical research buildings, scientists’ scribbling is so in-your-face that whole walls are covered with ideas born and then erased. In older buildings, there’s sometimes a large chalkboard instead. Eric Lander, the head of the Broad Institute, once told me that the floor-to-ceiling write-on walls at the Broad were inspired by an experience earlier in his career when he began explaining an idea at a meeting. In his enthusiasm to get his point across, he began sketching directly on the wall.

It wasn’t until fairly late in life that I realized white boards weren’t ubiquitous in people’s homes and work places. I grew up with a white board bolted within close range of the dinner table, and my parents—a polymer chemist and a molecular biologist—would not hesitate to use it as an explanatory aid.

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This side of science pretty much never shows up in the final results. So I was fascinated a few weeks ago, when I was in New York in the last days of an exhibition of papers from the collection of the late mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot at the Bard Graduate Center. The papers on display weren’t all finished products; some featured scribblings and sketches. One series of drawings helped lay the foundation for a concept in chaos theory. A loopy sketch revealed the outline of a mathematician’s thinking through a problem, interrupting a stream of handwriting.

Doodling is not typically part of science education, but some people think it should be. Felice Frankel, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has for years worked with scientists to help them create visual representations of their work that more clearly communicate their results. A few years ago, she launched an effort called “Picturing to Learn” in which students would use drawings to explain scientific concepts, ranging from Brownian motion, the random movement of particles, to chemical bonding.

Frankel realized that drawing could be powerful when she sat with scientists and saw that to explain something to her, they needed pen and paper, at the least.

“It wasn’t just making pretty pictures; it was a clarification tool,” Frankel said. “Invariably, they’d make a sketch or drawing, and while they were doing that they were thinking about ‘what I should include for Felice?’ I could see their wheels turning ... as they were explaining it to me, they were clarifying it for themselves; that’s when I realized, ‘By God, this could be a powerful teaching tool.’”

This isn’t exactly a new idea. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, created a very visual representation of the interactions between elementary particles, known as Feynman diagrams. In the documentary, “No Ordinary Genius,” a colleague recalls how Feynman sketched nudes on stacks of doilies and paper placemats as an unusual lunchtime ritual. Later, he found they were covered with mathematical equations, too.

But drawing by hand gets little attention in today’s world of PowerPoint lessons and multiple choice tests. Late last year, at a memorial service for the Harvard University paleontologist Farish Jenkins, students and colleagues recalled fondly the exacting anatomical drawings he would make in chalk, spending hours preparing them for a class, despite the fact they would inevitably—and soon—be erased.

It’s an open secret that scientists depend on drawing to get their point across, to receive new ideas from their colleagues, and to clarify their own thinking. It doesn’t show up in scientific papers, but it goes into the interior design of new science buildings and is often the most prominent art in a scientist’s office. Maybe it should be a bigger part of how we think about learning science in the first place.

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