Profile: Jon Heras, Seeing Is Believing

he cold sea fogs of Scotland have inspired many artists, but as a boy Jonathan Heras saw instead the North Sea oil fields and the prosperity they brought to his hometown of Aberdeen. So he became an engineer, earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. But today, he makes his living as a graphic artist, and although his art is not inspired by Scotland’s scenery, his renderings of science are no less vivid than its raw and boisterous coast.

From the science behind the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN, the European particle physics lab; to the construction of the Bloodhound SSC, a car capable of speeds above 1000 miles per hour; to a portrait of a microscopic bacteriophage that recently received an honorable mention in Science magazine’s Visualization Challenge, Heras’s illustrations and animations depict a wide range of scientific concepts.

Heras, now 30, first explored animation in his early 20s when he and a university friend, Ivan Vallejo, directed a satirical stop-motion movie called The Polos of Death. Recorded on location in a college dorm room, the film features the action figure Boba Fett, from Star Wars, battling to the death a tribe of bloodthirsty Polos — a peppermint sweet — set to a soundtrack of Burt Bacharach and the Bee Gees. The film was “just a bit of fun,” Heras says, but he enjoyed the process of animation because it required him to be meticulous — a skill he seems to possess naturally and one he came to rely on during his Ph.D.

During his graduate studies in Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, Heras looked at the flow patterns of liquid and gas through a catalytic converter using magnetic resonance imaging. His research subject proved difficult to convey to an audience at conferences, so Heras made short animated films of his flow-pattern data. “People don’t always remember what you are doing in terms of your research, but they do seem to remember you as the guy with the flashy animation,” he says, laughing.

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