The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Irving Geis’s Pioneering Scientific Illustrations and Diagrams of Imaginary Flight Paths to Venus

What the structure of DNA has to do with interplanetary travel and the cross-pollination of art and science.

Two generations after Ernst Haeckel’s seminal biological art, American artist Irving Geis (October 18, 1908–July 22, 1997) ushered in a new era of scientific illustration, his intricate hand-drawn work shedding light on such landmark twentieth-century discoveries as the structure of proteins and DNA. When he was only 29, he was commissioned by Fortune to create this stunning drawing of the circulatory system, which would come to influence a wealth of subsequent stunning vintage illustrations of the body and which marked his foray into scientific illustration:

Though best-remembered today as the illustrator behind the 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics (which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy, all the more relevant in today’s data-driven everything), Geis found himself mesmerized by the world of science by the beginning of the 1960s — a world that had been catapulted into an electrifying renaissance with the discovery of DNA only a few years earlier. And so Geis, formally trained as an architect and thus as far removed from science as formal education makes possible, set out to illuminate the building blocks of life using his singular skill. Soon, he began working with Scientific American and illustrating everything from cellular biology to space travel.

Geis’s early sketch of a hemoglobin molecule. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)
Geis’s illustration of the hemoglobin tetramer. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)
Concept sketch for Geis’s 1961 painting of sperm whale myoglobin, the very first protein structure solved by X-ray crystallography, for Scientific American.
Irving Geis with his near-complete 1961 painting of the structure of myoglobin. The heme portion of the protein, depicted in red, is still lacking the oxygen molecule at its center. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

In 1960, a year before he created his now-legendary myoglobin illustration for Scientific American, Geis was commissioned by the magazine to draw a series of diagrams envisioning four alternative flight paths to Venus. An article titled “Interplanetary Navigation,” premised on the idea that space flight between the planets should be a reality “within a year or two,” imagined how an earth-bound navigator would go about bringing a vehicle loaded with scientific instruments to the alluring second planet from the sun, which Scientific American deemed “the planet most likely to be visited first by an interplanetary vehicle.” (They were, of course, wrong — it wasn’t Venus, and it took another ten years to realize the interplanetary dream with Mars.)

Geis’s first task was to revise our conventional models of the cosmos with a third dimension in mind, because treating the solar system as two-dimensional “could cause a vehicle to miss its objective by a thousand miles.” So Geis took the standard two-dimensional diagram…

…and gave it a third dimension, drawing Earth’s orbit on one transparent sheet of plastic and Venus’s on another, then mounting the two sheets in a glass plate and angling them at the approximate angle at which the two planets’ orbital planes intersect each other:

Geis then inspected his three-dimensional model and decided on the best angle at which to translate it into a two-dimensional diagram. The resulting four diagrams depicted the four possible paths to Venus:

A flight path wholly in the plane of earth’s orbit which is timed to make rendezvous with Venus when the planet crosses the earth’s orbital plane.
A flight path wholly in the plane of Venus, with the launching of the vehicle timed at a moment when the earth crosses Venus’s orbital plane.
A flight path started in the orbital plane of the earth and deflected in the orbital plane of Venus by a rocket thrust fired on a radio command from earth.
A flight path projected on a plane (hatched area) that intersects the orbital planes of the two planets, with the vehicle flying out of the earth’s orbital plane and into the orbital plane of Venus.

Complement Geis’s work with this retrospective of 2,000 years of scientific images and a look at the history of medical illustration.

Published October 18, 2013




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