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Author-illustrator Macaulay to speak at MIT April 1

David Macaulay, the acclaimed illustrator and author whose books, especially "The Way Things Work," animate the overlap between art and engineering, will discuss how he works in a free public lecture, "Finding Ideas, Making Books and Visualizing Our World," to be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, in Kirsch Auditorium.

"Macaulay's work resonates very powerfully with MIT's ethos of innovation and advancing knowledge. His work cuts across many disciplines, and his visit to MIT is a good example of the interdisciplinary endeavors we like to catalyze," said Deborah Fitzgerald, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Macaulay, 61, has dissected the building methods used in cathedrals in the Middle Ages, in New England mills, and in Turkish mosques down to each nut and bolt. He has illustrated a major new book on human anatomy, "The Way We Work," to be published later this year.

Winner of a 2006 MacArthur "genius" Fellowship, Macaulay has received the Bradford Washburn Award, presented by Boston's Museum of Science to an outstanding contributor to science, the Caldecott Medal, an American Institute of Architects Medal, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among many other awards.

Macaulay's lecture is hosted by the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Graduate Program in Science Writing and sponsored by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the School of Engineering, the School of Science and the School of Architecture and Planning.

In anticipation of his MIT talk, Macaulay described his way of working as not quite mens et manus (mind and hand), but one that ping pongs between the two.

"My projects begin as idea fragments that may be drawn, literally and figuratively, from an experience, visual image, or text. The first physical manifestation appears either in sketchbooks or on really cheap tracing paper and is always a combination of often indistinguishable words and scribbles," he wrote in an email from Vermont, where he lives.

Macaulay estimates he spends at least eighty percent of his time developing his ideas. At the outset of any new project, he relies entirely on markers, colored pencils, safari fountain pens, erasers, magic tape, and pads of tracing paper.

"These tools make few demands and respond quickly to my movements," he said.

Typically he covers page after page with notes and swift sketches: His projects are complex and serious, as demanding as any of the engineering marvels they decode. Macaulay's job may not be for the faint of heart, but it is for the light of heart, he noted.

"I smile a lot because of things that occur to me as I'm working and because I just love to do this kind of work. It's a quiet sort of satisfaction that I get when I come up with something that will make my readers smile," he said.

Now that he's finished "The Way We Work," a grueling project that kept Macaulay in his studio for about six years, he's ready to explore anew. MIT may be the place he'll discover his next adventure.

"I'm more than ready to empty the shelves of basic human anatomy and start stocking them with what I imagine will be an intriguing collection of odds and ends," he said. "The invitation to visit MIT comes at a wonderful time. My goal is to see what you're up to down there."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 19, 2008 (download PDF).

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