10 Aug 2018

The Art of Presenting Science = Literally!

Post by Helaine Becker

I had the great pleasure of working with illustrator Dow Phumiruk on Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, which "launched" earlier this summer.

Dow's artwork, in my opinion, is stunning, and really brought the book to the next level. I was curious as to how she blended her knowledge of math and science with her artwork to create such effective illustrations. So I asked her.

Here is the result of that interview:

H: Your artwork in Counting on Katherine is so beautiful. But it's more than that - I can tell that it's historically accurate too. Can you describe your process - how did you research the illustrations in Counting on Katherine?

D: So much research!!

I started with online sources from NASA. I also watched online interviews with Katherine Johnson herself, which I found to be the most helpful to learn about her personality. I read about the start of NASA, about the solar system. I filled a folder on my computer with screenshots of images I thought might be useful for reference. I read the Hidden Figures narrative nonfiction book by Margot Shetterly (the movie did not come out until after my final art was turned in). I made trips to the library to look through books about space. I also looked at maps and images of what West Virginia looked like in the 1930s, including the Greenbrier Inn in her hometown, and what her classrooms might have looked like back then. I looked at online clothing ads and patterns as well as old photographs to see what styles of clothing best represented the fashion of each phase of her life. And of course, I found as many photographs of Katherine herself at different ages.

H: What were the biggest challenges? Biggest surprises?

D: The biggest challenge was the above-described quest for accuracy, from the math to the scenery from her childhood. It was really difficult to find enough photo reference from that long ago. Little details were hard to discern, like if her family might have owned a car upon moving to Institute, West Virginia. In addition, her achievements spanned decades, and this meant learning as much as I could about the evolution of our space program over this long period of time.

I was surprised about Katherine in general. I didn't know who she was upon receiving the pitch for this project. I couldn't believe I had not heard of her before. The more I learned about her life, the more I grew inspired!

H: The endpapers are stunning. They show a blackboard covered with mathematical equations and math problems. How did you, a)think to do this for the book, and b) come up with the material to put on the board?  

D:  I wanted to represent Katherine's genius with math-filled chalkboards. Picturing her as a young girl in front of these chalkboards made sense to emphasize the extent of her abilities since early childhood.

Coming up with the information to fill the chalkboards was not easy! I may have been proficient at math in my youth, but now advanced math is a challenge. Basic algebra and word problems, like the picnic pies and the rocket ship questions, are not a problem for me to make up. I was able to easily google search equations for circumference, radius, volumes of different shapes for example, to make up the ice cream cone question (in which I do not clarify is the volume of the parts of a one scoop cone, by the way!). Sometimes, as for the rocket ship trajectory question, I’d leave off needed information to answer the question (so that I wouldn't need to have an answer!).
I used multiple sources for the rest and especially for the higher level math and physics seen in the book. I got lots of help from my family, sampling bits from my girls' homework (their work spanned algebra to calculus) and basic physics equations from my husband’s old physics book (he is a former engineer). I also found some information online, altering the source by replacing letters and figures so it would not be just copied. In compiling this together to fill the board, I would sometimes intentionally obscure parts.

In the end, I would remind myself that this is a book about a mathematician and her brilliance and not a math textbook to keep myself from hyperventilating.

What projects are you working on now???

I have a couple books in the works, but they have not been announced yet. I will say that I am very excited to be both author and illustrator for these upcoming projects!