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Apping the Ante

Freelance author Douglas Palmer draws on his experience of converting a book into the iPad app ‘NHM Evolution’ to consider what the future holds for geological illustration.

“We ought to talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches”

J W Goethe (Italian Journey, 1786-1788)

These days, illustration is de rigueur for the communication of Earth science but it has not always been so, and even today the tools for the job are evolving rapidly. One particular device may help revolutionise the way we communicate our science and have a particular impact on teaching and learning – the handheld iPad or android tablet.


From early writings in the 16th Century on, what we now call geology or more fashionably, ‘Earth science’, ‘fossils’ were the most common subject of illustration because of their puzzling form and nature. At that time ‘fossil’ meant ‘something dug up’ and therefore included both minerals and the fossil remains of past organic life. Their depiction for publication in books and early ‘scientific’ journals required no more technique than was applied to living organisms or aspects of human biology.

Image: Copper engraving of ‘Echini varie compressi, & fracti’ illustrated on Plate 26 of Augustino Scilla’s book on fossils originally published in 1670 but the text and plates were still being reproduced well into the 18th century, as with this copy printed in Rome in 1752.  Reproduced with the kind permission of the Earth Sciences Library, University of Cambridge

There was no shortage of highly competent artists and illustrators who could produce faithful representations of crystals, minerals and fossils. Nevertheless, it was some time before the illustrative potential of subjects within the wider span of geology was realised. Gradually throughout the 18th Century, geological structures (from stratification to folds and volcanic phenomena) were illustrated along with visual interpretations of landscape and topography and the distribution of rocks in time and space, depicted in maps and sections. The accuracy of illustration was probably enhanced by the use of the camera obscura. Its further development and the invention in 1807 of the camera lucida by William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828, FGS 1812), led to an even more accurate representation of many geologically related materials, which were and still are best interpreted and represented by drawings.

As Martin Rudwick has spelt out in several publications since the early 1970s, it was not really until modern geology really took off in the early decades of the 19th Century that illustration was widely used in field notes and correspondence, lecture hall and publications. And perhaps it is no accident that many of the early members of the Geological Society of London, such as Henry De la Beche and William Conybeare, not only had a good eye for illustration but were also personally adept at sketching both geological phenomena - and caricatures of their colleagues.

The main constraint on illustration for publication was the relatively high cost of reproducing high quality images, especially if they required hand colouring in the decades before the widespread use of colour printing in the late 19th Century, especially for complex images such as geological maps. Technically, there was of course a whole succession of new illustration and printing techniques, evolving from engraving on wood and copper to aquatint, mezzotint and steel engraving, which advanced both the quality and quantity of images that could be printed from a single plate.


Image: Screen grab from the BGS geology map of the Sgoran Dubh Mor and Gleann Eanaich region, south of Aviemore and Coylumbridge in the Cairngorms. CP12/077 British Geological Survey © NERC. All rights reserved. Map Britain elevation data from Intermap Technologies. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and database rights 2012

Even with the advent of photography in the 1820s, it took decades before the results were good enough for illustration of relatively small objects, such as fossils or thin sections of rocks; but inevitably, it did happen. Now, we have such high expectations of the kind of resolution achievable by photography that the limiting factor is more that of the mass printing process than the definition of the original image. The modern era with its new techniques of electron microscopy opened a whole new micro-world of wonderful images from both inorganic and organic sources, ranging from atoms to chromosomes and a host of fossil microstructures and organisms.

Further advances in imaging techniques using a variety of physical phenomena and energy sources such as gravity, heatflow, vibration, electricity, electromagnetic waves, magnetism, radioactivity etc., have revealed detailed images of a multiplicity of novel geological phenomena. Digitisation of the images, their electronic transformation and transmission has again helped revolutionise communication of a wealth of geologically derived visual material.

Image: The same region viewed on the BGS iGeology3D app for androids. ‘CP12/077 British Geological Survey © NERC. All rights reserved. Map Britain elevation data from Intermap Technologies. Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and database rights 2012

We can now view geological phenomena, ranging from the spectacular false-colour images, such as those of the Chicxulub impact crater, revealed by gravity survey, and satellite radar images of large terrains with a variety of geological features to an ever-increasing number of remarkable and highly informative computer-generated digital images and models of fossil organisms based on various sources such as CT (computerised tomography) scans.

Never before has there been such a wealth of visual material for the communication of geology, especially in the lecture hall. But until very recently the means of transmitting these images for wider publication has been limited largely by the confines of the printed page and cost of their reproduction. Although many of the modern digital images depict three-dimensional structures in new ways that give a much better sense of shape and form than traditional photography and illustration has achieved, they are still constrained by the two-dimensional nature of the reproducing medium.

Furthermore, the business of making the new array of imagery available for educational purposes has become increasingly difficult because of the cost of permissions for reproduction in popular or semi-popular publications. We are almost back to the situation of centuries ago when geologists, such as Gideon Mantell, were faced with the almost crippling cost of reproducing illustrations essential for the informed communication of their work - be they maps, sections or fossils.

Computers and search engines such as Wikipedia and Wikimedia commons (images) have made many of the new images widely available to view but often without clear indications of copyright ownership, so that any author has to be very careful about reproducing any such images. The owners of many of the images, who have put much time and effort into their generation have been understandably dismayed to find their work effectively ‘pirated’.


The new ‘kids on the block’, which could, I think, revolutionise the communication and understanding of our wealth of geological imagery, are the hand-held, multitouch tablet computers, such as the new generation of mobile phones and iPad/tablets.

Many geologists will no doubt already be familiar with the incredibly useful and free iGeology and mySoil apps (available for the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android phone) produced by BGS, which access the detailed subsurface and surface geology of the British Isles. There is also the even more novel iGeology 3D (launched mid-July 2012), which ‘paints’ a geological map over any landscape that you can see around you through your phone’s camera (images above).  It uses the phone’s GPS for location, the compass for direction and other clever features such as an accelerometer to produce these remarkable augmented views.

The BGS development team are looking at ways to generate cutaway vertical sections for viewing of the subsurface geology. So far this is only available for Android phones and tablets but according to a BGS spokesman it should be available for iphones etc in a year’s time. BGS are also developing other ‘add-ons’ for iGeology, such as ‘push notifications’, whereby users can be alerted to geological events such as earthquakes and, if they experienced it, provide feedback on that experience, which would then be stored on a data bank for research purposes.

Image: Screen grab from the NHMEvolution app Timeband, showing a reconstruction of the Burgess Shale. Using the ipad, a tap on the blue dots gives information about the species.

On a more international scale there are other very well produced and useful apps, such as Columbia University’s Earth Observer (for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad), which allows detailed scanning of the whole of Earth’s topography, both above and below sea level, along with a wealth of geological information and imagery, such as plate boundaries and the velocity of their motion, gravity and magnetic anomalies. However, the generation of applications (apps) for such devices requires a whole set of new skills both technical and design and has serious cost implications (ie., it is very expensive!).


I have just spent a year writing and generally being involved in the creation of an app called ‘NHM Evolution’ (for iPad), which, as the title suggests is co-published with London’s Natural History Museum. Even though the app is built around the central artwork first created for a book (which I wrote and was published by Mitchell-Beazley and the University of California Press in 2009), it still took a full year’s worth of very hard work by several people to transform this book into a viable ‘app’ - which has to be so much more than ‘just’ an e-book, to make any significant impact.

Image: Guimarota, Portugal, 152 million years ago.  Tapping the blue name band at the top reveals information about the site and provides a further link to the Timeglobe and the site’s original location.

The whole purpose of an app of this kind is that it should extend beyond ‘mere’ bookish words (all 200,000+ in this instance) and use multimedia resources of video, sound and images, which the viewer/reader can manipulate digitally – in the original sense of the word, ie., move by the finger.

Image: Fayum, Egypt, 34 million years ago.  The lowermost strip shows a segué of adjacent site reconstructions with a cursor, which can be used for rapid navigation through all 100 reconstructions.

In the NHM Evolution app, the basic image source consists of 100 watercolour reconstructions (by natural history artist Peter Barrett) of specific fossil sites from around the world, many of which are lagerstätten and some of which are World Heritage Sites. I chose them to best illustrate over 600 million years of the history and evolution of life from the Ediacaran to the present. The illustrations form a continuous strip (the original artwork totalled 50m in length) with an associated moving timescale, which can be scrolled through, and is populated by some 900 named fossil organisms. Descriptions and classification of all these fossils can be recovered by tapping the individual image. And, a description of each site can be recovered, along with links to its position in geological time and space.

Image: 0 MYA shows a ‘blue-marble’ view of modern  distribution of the landmasses and oceans with present day topography.

The latter link is, I think, one of the most innovative features of the app as plate motion over the last 600 million years is presented on a satellite view of Earth. The ‘blue marble’ can be ‘digitally’ spun, expanded and, by dragging a cursor along the geological column, seen to reveal the changing disposition of the continents and oceans. The data has been provided by Dr Alan Smith of the University of Cambridge and is generally familiar to geologists. Normally this information has to be reproduced in a series of two-dimensional whole-Earth projections. But, in my view, the opportunity to manipulate such a wealth of data in your own time and way, can make a considerable a difference to the learning experience, especially for anyone new to the subject.

Image: 18 MYA showing the convergence of the Indian plate on South-East Asia. Present day coastlines and topography are purposefully retained because it helps the non-expert viewer to recognise the continental plates even back into Early Palaeozoic times.

However, fossils are the core illustrative material of the app and, as a palaeontologist by training, I have always been interested in the problems of illustrating fossils. I have often thought that until recently, not much progress has been made in the quality of interpretive depiction, essentially drawing and its reproduction, since the work of the best of the 17th Century Italian Renaissance masters, such as Scilla and Fabio Colonna, who first engraved fossils so accurately.

Image: 66 MYA shows the Tethyan Ocean separating Africa from Asia and the Indian plate at the beginning of its northern motion away from Africa

However, an important innovation was the 19th Century development of reconstructed prehistoric scenes, such as those generated for August Goldfuss’s Fossils of Germany (1826-44), which were executed to a very high standard by an unknown artist in the Düsseldorf lithographic firm of Arnz). Likewise, by the 1840s Franz Xaver Unger’s Flora of the Former World was beautifully illustrated by Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859), a well known landscape painter in Graz.


While modern computer generated images (CGI) have become the norm today and are generally expected as a mode of illustration, especially for reconstructions of the past, so many of the results are still horribly stiff, simplified and set against totally inappropriate modern landscapes. There is no doubt that with ‘deep’ technical and financial resources, such as those available to the computer games industry, CGI will greatly improve and probably become the favoured and perhaps the best mode of illustration.

Image: 152 MYA shows the Tethyan Ocean and the breakup of Pangaea with the opening of the Central Atlantic

But until the costs come right down, few publishers will be able to afford the best. Meanwhile we have to put up with a lot of very mediocre and misleading illustration of the life of the past. Until then, reconstructions largely depend upon traditional illustrations produced by excellent contemporary artists, such as John Sibbick, Luis Rey, Steve Kirk, Douglas Henderson and, in the case of the NHM Evolution app, Peter Barrett.

Perhaps more important for academic palaeontological communication and education is the illustration of the fossils themselves, still largely by photography or some electronic imaging, such as SEM. These days the quality of the original images is just about as good as it can get; but is often let down by the reproduction process of digitisation for printing. Costs are again high, especially if any images have to be bought in, and there is still no completely satisfactory and simple means of representing the 3D form of many fossils for popular or semipopular educational books, without recourse to additional ‘kit’ in the form of 3D glasses or stereoscopes. Such techniques were successfully introduced some 50 and more years ago, especially in publications like The Stereo-Atlas of Ostracod Shells (1973-98); but these were primarily research publications and not widely available. Certainly for the researcher this is an invaluable tool which is now being used with computer generated images of fossils and could be more widely available but not cheaply.

Image: Screengrab showing the skull of Thrinaxodon, an Early Triassic cynodont from South Africa (image courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London).  The top of the skull retains part of the sagittal crest and the pits in the snout region may have housed whiskers in life. 

However, again the ipad/tablet is providing a new and greatly improved mode of presentation with images, which can be rotated through 360 degrees. These give a remarkably effective pseudo-3D effect, probably because the eye and brain are fooled by the changing shadows to think that it is a genuine 3D image. The technique is easy and relatively cheap, as each ‘spinnable’ image is based on a sequence of 72 photos, taken at 5° intervals, and a clever piece of software that links them together to give an apparently continuous view. This technique could be applied to any rock, mineral, crystal model etc, which can be rotated and photographed.

Image: Using the ipad, this image can be rotated to show the double occipital condyle at the back of the skull, characteristic of mammals.

For NHM Evolution, the Natural History Museum generated a number of these images, mainly of skulls, especially those of dinosaurs and hominins, and again for me these work very well. The same technique is used in the very popular and successful ‘The Elements’ app by Theodore Gray, which has the added benefit of Tom Lehrer’s famous song. If only there was a similarly appropriate and amusing song about evolution – perhaps there is and I just don’t know about it.


I suspect that apps are going to be an increasingly important part of scientific communication in the very near future. Schools are buying ipads but are finding that there are still very few apps that are sufficiently targeted for the National Curriculum. Part of the problem is that making a content-rich app is not cheap (many tens of thousands of pounds) but the app itself has to have a low price-point – less than a paperback book.

Image: A cast of Tiktaalik roseae, a Late Devonian lobefin from Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.  Although the fossil remains has suffered considerable flattening, it has a remarkably well preserved skull, pectoral fins and girdle.

Fortunately our major Earth science institutions, such as the British Geological Survey and the Natural History Museum, are in the vanguard with the new medium and helping to broadcast the message to a new generation of ‘wannabe’ geologists. If you have already got the message, why not take a look and see what you think?


  • Goldfuss, A (1826-44) Fossils of Germany’/Petrefacta Germaniae Lieferung 1-8
  • Rudwick, M J S (1972) The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology, Macdonald, London, 287 p.
  • Rudwick, M J S (1976) The emergence of a visual language for geological science 1760-1840, History of Science 14, 149-195.
  • Rudwick, M J S (1992) Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World, University of Chicago Press, 280 p.
  • The Stereo-Atlas of Ostracod Shells, (1973-1998), 25 volumes, The Micropalaeontological Society.
    Unger, F X (1841-7) Flora of the Former World/ Chloris protogaea, Graz.


  • Earth Observer, Columbia University
  • iGeology British Geological Survey
  • iGeology 3D, British Geological Survey
  • mySoil (2012) British Geological Survey
  • Palmer, D (2012) NHM Evolution authoredapps and Natural History Museum, London
  • Gray, T (2011) The Elements