PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When David Macaulay sketches a chest cavity, he thinks of Rome.
He envisions a beam of light radiating through a rib, illuminating a lung space, just as sunlight floods the dome of the Pantheon, one of the city’s most admired ancient temples.
Twenty years after illustrating the laws of physics and gadgetry in his popular children’s book, “The Way Things Work,” Macaulay has turned his imagination to the human anatomy in “The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body.”
The colorful illustrations from the former architecturally trained Macaulay accompany descriptions of everything from how humans breathe, sweat and reproduce to how we digest food, fight off infections and even dream while sleeping.
Macaulay has drawn a skeleton juggling stem cells. Muscle cells gyrate under a disco ball. Airborne angels hold back the ascending and descending colon to reveal a pastoral intestinal landscape.
He explains meiosis, the making of sex cells, with a pair of homologous chromosomes in spotlights performing what looks like a sexy tango dance in a “Meiotic Mixer.”
His kid-friendly drawing style invites even squeamish readers to explore.
“It takes the sting off the subject matter,” said James Hall, assistant director of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, where Macaulay’s books and artwork are on display through February. “Although his drawings are tremendously complicated, they’re also accessible.”
Macaulay let his curiosity guide him through unknown territory over six grueling years of research so that he could take readers on an accurate, but visually compelling, corporeal tour.
“It helps you make more authentic images,” he said of his approach, which including sticking his hand inside a cadaver and touching a spleen as well as watching a painstaking knee replacement surgery.
“And that is my job, to create images that not only accurately convey information, but draw the reader in, even if they weren’t sure they wanted to know that stuff,” he added.
Macaulay says the scope of the topic was so overwhelming that he thought of stopping several times. Working with award-winning British science writer Richard Walker, who wrote the text, helped a bit by freeing up Macaulay to focus on the illustrations.
So why write it at all, especially since he considered, then dismissed, the idea more than two decades ago? His own aging process, and the creaks and aches that came along, led him to wonder about his physical self.
“I realized I had no real basic understanding of how I work,” said Macaulay, 61. And he didn’t always get the terminology when others around him became ill or died.
His new book is still quite technical in places. He opens with atoms, the world’s building blocks, then moves onto more complicated body parts and configurations.
“The nice thing about a book is you can take it at your own pace. Even skip the first part,” he said. “You could go back. I thought it was important almost from a narrative point of view to start with the cells.”
But to explain cells, he suddenly found himself back at atoms.
“I know a lot more than I did six years ago. But I also feel I’ve scratched the surface,” he said. “It is so visually complex, and at the chemical level, the molecular level, it remains so mysterious.”
Macaulay, who was born in England and now lives in Norwich, Vt., taught from 1974 to 1998 at RISD, where he headed the illustration department and is now an honorary trustee of the renowned institution.
He found a lesson in communal living from the lives of cells. All our systems — respiratory, circulatory, digestive, and more — are built by cells for cells, he said.
“Cells over time figured out that if they worked together … and shared the responsibility and didn’t all try to do the same things, they could be more successful as a community,” he said.
“It’s all about that community notion. We’re the only ones capable of verbalizing it, describing it, actually thinking about it as a metaphor for our own communal possibility,” he said.
Next on Macaulay’s idea list: “It’s time to do something small, so I think I’m going to do the Earth.”