An Illustrated Guide to the Mysterious

In a new book, artists illustrate the big (and not-so-big) questions in science.


How much of human behavior is predetermined? Why is the world green? What drives plate tectonics? Those are some of the questions scientists and artists contemplate in a new book The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (Chronicle Books), edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe.

The book includes 75 essays on topics ranging from cosmology to biology to nanotechnology, each illustrated by a different artist.

“The idea came from our longstanding fascination with old scientific drawings and diagrams. We use them as art, and love them visually,” says Jenny Volvovski. “Sometimes the science wasn’t all known so the artists sort of filled in the gaps,” Volvovski adds.

The three editors write that they wanted to “bring back a sense of the unknown, that has been lost in the age of information.” As non-scientists (they run the design company Also), they called on the help of relatives to come up with a list of the big questions in science. (Rothman’s sister is a primatologist; Volvovski’s mother worked at Fermi Lab.) Then they enlisted scientists to write the essays.

Illustration by Micah Lidberg for the essay “Why is the World Green?” From “The Where, the Why, and the How,” edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe

Each selected artist received an essay but didn’t have any communication with the scientist. “We didn’t want the scientists to influence the artists,” says Rothman. “We really wanted the artists to come up with their own ideas, and be their own investigators. Since each of these essays has that element of mystery, that did leave the artists room to interpret.”

So how much of human behavior is predetermined? Ponder that mystery for a while, before you read one essay from the book, below.

Illustration by Catell Ronca for the essay “How Much of Human Behavior is Predetermined.” From “The Where, the Why, and the How,” edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe

The following is excerpted from The Where, The Why, and The How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, Edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe, (Chronicle Books, 2012):

How Much of Human Behavior is Predetermined?
By Vladimir Sloutsky Ph.D., Professor, The Ohio State University

How much of human behavior is predetermined genetically, that is, fully controlled by genes, not learned? This is the perennial nature versus nurture question. Because human behavior is very complex and different aspects of it may be under different levels of genetic and environmental control, we don’t have an answer to the question. For example, a baby loving her mother and an adult loving spicy foods are both examples of behavior, but they are under different levels of genetic control.

When a behavior is under complete genetic control, it is said to be hardwired—it is acquired quickly, but is rigid and inflexible. For example, spiders eat bugs, but never carrots. If there are no bugs, the spider will starve to death, and no level of experience will ever change that. In contrast, humans are avid learners—they learn all the time, from the womb (literally) to the grave. Furthermore, humans have a protracted period of life dedicated exclusively to learning. It is called “childhood,” and, regardless of life expectancy, it occupies 15 to 20 percent of the total life span. No non-primate species has such a long period dedicated to learning. We are born to learn! None of the interesting human behaviors are fully determined genetically, although genes play an important role. Unfortunately, this flexibility of human behavior is not free. We hold people responsible for their actions, and under what circumstances should they and should they not be accountable for what they do? Alas, this is a moral question, and science cannot answer it.

Meet the Writer

About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.