Steve Hsu has a post comparing his hand-drawn diagrams to computer-generated ones that a journal asked for instead:
He’s got a pretty decent case that the hand-drawn versions are better. Though a bit more work with the graphics software could make the computer ones better.
This reminded me, though, of something I’ve always found interesting about scientific publishing, namely the evolution in the use of figures through the years. Whenever I need to do literature searching, I always suspect you could guess the approximate date of a paper’s publication by looking at the figures.
If you go back far enough, reproducing figures was a very difficult process, so there tend to be relatively few of them. What figures you do get, though, are exquisite:
This is from the original Michelson-Morley paper, showing their apparatus. It doesn’t just give you a sense of the layout of their experiment, it’s also a pretty nice drawing. The various optics mounts are drawn with a fair bit of detail, and you even get nice little touches like the individual bricks of the support for their rotating granite optical table.
This was almost certainly the work of a professional draftsman (though I suppose it’s conceivable Michelson or Morley originally drew it, and just had it copied over). Getting a drawing into print was a non-trivial matter back in 1887, and if you were going to do it at all, you would have it done right.
This was the general state of affairs up until around the 1980′s: figures showing bits of apparatus, when they appeared, were very well-done, because they were generally handed off to professional draftsmen to make, so you get realistic perspective drawings of key components, and so on. The style changes a little to reflect the general aesthetic of the time– the Michelson-Morley figure looks like it’s from the late 1800′s– but the majority of figures in papers, particularly the ones significant enough to still be cited today, are professionally done.
Sometime in the early 1990′s, though, computers advanced to the point where any reasonably competent scientist could make his or her own figures on a desktop computer. At which point, you see a rapid shift to electronic submission of the figures (within my graduate career (1993-1999), we moved from sending in full-page printouts of our figures, to be scanned and reproduced at the journal, to emailing them .eps files containing the final figures) by the authors, without assistance from anyone else.
And, in that era, you have a dramatic decrease in the artistic quality of the figures. In fact, you get a lot of diagrams that look like Steve’s computer figure above: everything is represented by a featureless rectangle with a label on it. Or possibly a labeled oval or rounded rectangle, but always basic shape from a vector drawing program, because that’s what nearly everyone was using to make the figures.
This is pretty much the standard aesthetic I internalized as I became a professional scientist, and it’s what I default to even today. Here’s my rendering of the Michelson-Morley apparatus, from How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog:
That’s done in PowerPoint, because I’m familiar with its basic vector drawing tools, and that’s all I really need. I probably ought to learn to use something else, but if all I’m drawing is labeled basic shapes, why bother?
Of course, computers have continued to get more powerful, so we’ve entered yet another era. The figures are still done by individual scientists on their own machines, but it’s now relatively easy to do fancy graphics, so we’re back to having 3-d perspective renderings of everything, such as this figure from a recent paper about quantum optics:
The final version of this is in Nature Physics, and if you expect to get in a glamour journal like that, you can’t really get away with labeled boxes any more. Now everything’s in some desktop CAD program, with spiffy three-dimensional effects and color shading and all the rest.
There’s a bit of an uncanny valley effect to a lot of these, but over time, I bet that will go away, too. Twenty years from now, when scientific articles are beamed directly into our neural implants as open-access holograms, everything will probably look pristine and photorealistic. And the whole notion of schematic diagrams pieced together with basic vector-graphic shapes will seem as quaint and primitive as hand-drawn overhead transparencies do today.