A hand-drawn sketch of Dawn flying over Ceres.
The Dawn spacecraft soars above the cratered surface of Ceres in this hand-drawn scientific illustration. Credit: James Tuttle Keane, Caltech

Look around during any scientific presentation and you’ll see scientists of all career stages jotting down notes. This is especially true at conferences, where the hundreds or thousands of presentations can become one big blur after a week of sleep deprivation and science.

James Tuttle Keane’s approach to taking notes at conferences is, well, a bit different than most. Keane is a postdoctoral scholar at the Joint Center for Planetary Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He’s also a scientific illustrator. During conferences, Keane takes notes by creating elaborate sketches of presentations he attends. He outlines them live during each talk and then details and colors them later.

“I’ve always taken graphical notes because I’m a very visual person and I like to sketch,” Keane said. “They started out as just black-and-white pen sketches. Then I started adding color, and now they’re very detailed and take a lot of time and are very colorful. They’ve evolved and become more artistic.”

In his sketches, Keane tries to capture a few of the key points of a presentation, but from his own point of view. “I want them to have my perspective, my flavor,” he said. “I want them to either show something that wasn’t shown explicitly or say something in a different way.”

Keane started his conference live sketching in 2014, and the science community’s response, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been exciting to watch this become more of a thing,” he said. “I think that it’s useful to show how you can fold art into science. I think that it’s been beneficial to everyone.”

We first noticed Keane during the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in Texas earlier this year. All told, he created around 20 different sketches from some of the talks he attended, with topics from Mercury to Pluto and beyond.

Take a tour of the solar system with some of his (and our) favorite illustrations from that conference.

What Does Mercury Look Like Inside? Ask Its Gravity

By Grabthar’s Hammer, Go Back to Venus!

This sketch is Keane’s personal favorite from the conference.

Our Moon Might Soon Receive Some Visitors from China

If You’re Thirsty on Mars, Head Toward the North Pole

Ceres Was Getting Dizzy…

Don’t Forget Europa’s Rocky Center

It’s Raining Organics! On Saturn, That Is

Pluto’s Chaotic Surface Is Really Just an Icy Slip ’n Slide

Since LPSC, Keane has been busy explaining the Mars InSight mission and sketching talks at the New Views of the Moon 2–Asia workshop in Japan. Keep an eye out for more of Keane’s work during upcoming conferences and the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule on New Year’s Eve 2019.

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer


Cartier, K. M. S. (2018), Touring the solar system with science art, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO099473. Published on 22 May 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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