In his previous books, award-winning author and illustrator David Macaulay has deconstructed a cathedral, a computer mouse, the Empire State Building, and E-mail, among other things. In The Way We Work, he (with coauthor Richard Walker) turns to the human body, taking readers on a tour of ourselves—from the atoms that make us up to the brain that governs it all. The breakdown of glucose into ATP is drawn to look almost like a pinball game. A section on the spleen envisions it as a factory, complete with conveyor belts and parking spots for workers, that breaks down the worn-out red blood cells and recycles whatever elements it can. High blood pressure is illustrated with drawings of pipes and gauges. The flow of oxygen through the body's circulatory and respiratory systems is portrayed as a roller coaster called "Ride of a Lifetime." Macaulay spoke with U.S. News about his latest work.
Was it hard to go from illustrating buildings and machines to drawing human anatomy?
I approached it the same way as I would a building. I asked why it looked this way, how was it made, etc. Gradually the complexity of it unfolds.
I took biology in high school and barely got through it—I cut up a shark, and that's all I remember. I have a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old, and they'd come home with a drawing of the circulatory system and say, "I think you might need this." I figured there were a lot of people like me who would like to know about this.
What system was the hardest to illustrate?
The brain. The other systems have such distinctive shapes and forms associated with them; you can draw certain organs, like the heart, and they're immediately recognizable. But you can't draw the brain and show how memory works.
How did you decide how reductionist you'd be?
From the beginning, I wanted to include cells. We are built of all these living things, and they have managed to arrange themselves in different ways and accept these different functions in order that the entire organism can work. I think of it as a community—certain neighbors are responsible for certain things. Then, OK, I've got this cell, but what is it made of? Why does it need glucose? What are the amino acids? Then I got into DNA and RNA, and I kept going back; ultimately, to the handful of elements that make us up.
Did all your research convince you that maybe some higher power designed it all?
No, I'm going to stick with evolution!
You say you're in awe of the body. Do you treat your own differently now?
I do ride my bike more. I got it out and put it in a place where I can jump on it and ride around. I used to hear the doctor asking if I was getting enough exercise and say no, but after working on the body, I've learned to appreciate and respect it a little bit more and listen to what I've been told. And I eat fewer peanut M&M's.