Art vs. Science, Part Three: A little mystery is a good thing

Cajal's Revenge, 2007
Katherine Sherwood

It's been a while since I've been able to focus on my Art vs. Science series of posts, so I understand if you've forgotten Part One and Part Two. A quick recap: in Part One, I asked,

I think that lay audiences approach scientific art differently - perhaps more credulously - than they do other forms of art, simply because lay audiences feel insecure and uncertain about basic science. Audiences may have so much respect for science, that they extend respect reflexively when science appears in other contexts - like art or entertainment. Anyone who's had to field the incredulous question "can they really do that?" from friends or family after an especially inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster knows exactly what I mean!

So: when artists specifically represent their work as scientific, or informed by science, or based on science, do they then have a certain responsibility to be, well, scientific? Or is that simply not part of the artist's role? (more)

In Part Two, we focused on the messiness of data, and how even the collection of experimental data is inevitably an act of interpretation:

It's not enough to collect a data set; it must be filtered for noise, analyzed, interpreted, and ultimately converted to a representation that viewers can understand. At every step, choices are made. At every step, the technology used by the scientist leaves its imprint. The final product of this process is idiosyncratic, not inevitable. . . .Scientific figures, like art, are interpretations of reality.

Artists may take more license than scientists - much of the time, at least - but even something as dispassionate as an X-ray or photograph distorts reality in certain ways. Our eyes and ears are far from objective; our brains and memories even less so. Pushing past our biases, biological limitations, and technological limitations so we can study what is actually there (whatever that means!) can be the hardest part of science. (more)

The point of these posts is that when you try to fold art and science together, you end up facing certain difficulties. When you try to figure out where those difficulties come from - how exactly artistic interpretation and scientific interpretation diverge, and what that means for scientific visualization - you can pinpoint some interesting aspects of both disciplines.

For this post, I'd like to ask about the audience - what role does the audience play in the artistic endeavor? More specifically, can scientific art ever be equally effective for both a layperson and a scientist? A work of art that manipulates the visual vocabulary of scientific expertise - whether physics, math, or anatomy - must almost always be experienced in a profoundly different way by an expert in those fields, as opposed to a nonspecialist. The expert brings a lot of baggage (esoteric background knowledge) to the gallery. But is that baggage a hindrance or a help to the artistic experience?

At some point in high school or college, you were probably assigned T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. It's one of my favorite poems, but students often complain that unpacking Eliot's collage of literary fragments requires an unreasonably broad knowledge of Western literature and culture. Literature always requires some preparation from its audience. You have to be able to read the language. You should be somewhat familiar with the author's culture. If you really want to get into the weeds, it helps to have read the author's major artistic influences. The Waste Land pushes these prerequisites toward the limit; while you don't have to recognize all Eliot's references, the more you know, the more appreciation you have for his work. This is generally true of art - or at least I always thought so!

Lately, however, I've begun to wonder if art inspired by science may be constrained in the opposite direction: that a certain scientific naivete in the viewer is expected, and too much knowledge may actually diminish the process of appreciating the art. Let me elaborate.

A few years ago, I visited a physics-inspired show with a fellow scientist. She hated it - specifically, she was disgusted that the equations scrawled all over a large canvas didn't balance! Aesthetically, as lines and curves, the equations were very pleasing (Hogarth would have approved). They may even have been more graceful and attractive than the balanced equations. But the equations' incoherence was a fatal dissonance for my friend. She was used to looking for beauty and meaning in the sense of the equation, not just its forms.

Personally, I cared more about the aesthetics of the artwork than the sense of the equations. But then I'm not a mathematician - and more generally, I often find myself relaxing my expectations of scientific art. I make excuses for it, like "perhaps this is more exciting/interesting/attractive to someone unfamiliar with genetics/anatomy/molecular biology!" or "Wow, this is probably a great way to introduce the concept to a layperson!" or even "Wow, this is a really good anatomical illustration for someone who has never had anatomy!" The more I find myself having this (vaguely patronizing) inner dialogue, the more I want to step back and ask this question: shouldn't good scientific art work for scientists as well as nonscientists?

Golgi's Door, 2007
Katherine Sherwood

Let's return to the paintings that inspired this post, by artist Katherine Sherwood. When I saw her work for the first time, I instantly recognized the bold, semi-abstract shapes as neurons - specifically, illustrations of Golgi-stained neurons by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. (note the titles of the work, which pay homage to Cajal and Golgi). I liked the paintings, but I also grumbled to myself, yet more trendy art inspired by vintage anatomy. (All of that took about half a second.)

Camara lucida drawing of a Purkinje cell in the cat cerebellar cortex
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
Gray's Anatomy, Lea & Febiger, 1917

My reaction, though, was hardly the reaction an "average viewer" would have. Critic Georgina Kleege (who is not a biologist) describes her own response to Sherwood's paintings quite differently:

For me, the brains in Sherwood's paintings are not always so readily apparent. And even when someone points them out to me, they sometimes look like something else - an ear, maybe a lung, a. . . what is that, a kidney? Forms recur. Patterns repeat. There are echoes of other organs and vessels here, blood vessels, intestines, fallopian tubes, branching nerve fibers, which also resemble the roots of plants, some sort of seaweed. Corals, brain corals, cauliflowers. For some there is a shock when what seems to be pure abstraction turns out to represent or recreate these bodily forms.

I appreciate what Kleege is saying here. Visual echoes are part of what makes life pleasurable for me - when I see a red coral, I also see a neuron (and a tree, and a circulatory system); when I see a split cauliflower, I see the form of a cerebellum. The problem is, while this process of associating one biological form with another is enjoyable, it's also very familiar to me, almost routine. I can't repeat the initial shock and surprise I first felt when I initially recognized the kinship of those natural forms. (I talked a little about the "a-ha" moment of recognition in my SEED piece on Christopher Reiger's Synesthesia #1 earlier this year). I suppose recognizing the neurons in Sherwood's paintings did give me certain elitist pleasure, a sort of fanboy smugness about recognizing references that would be opaque or obscure to most. But I don't need art to feel that way - I just need xkcd!

Anyway, because the shapes Sherwood uses in her paintings, the outlines of neurons, are second nature to me, I wound up standing in the gallery thinking not about the painting before me, but about Sherwood's influences and sources: Golgi, Cajal, and the Neuron Doctrine. The Golgi of "Golgi's Door" is Camillo Golgi, a prominent 19th century scientist best known as the namesake of the cellular organelle called the Golgi apparatus. During Golgi's time, neurons were thought to be fibers of a continuous reticular network; there was no way to determine otherwise, because it was impossible to dissect a single neuron out of the entangled mass that comprised the brain, and the gaps between neuronsa were far too small for a light microscope to reveal. But Golgi's method of staining cells, invented in 1873, offered anatomists like Santiago Ramon y Cajal a way to isolate individual neurons visually and delineate their structure. Cajal's work provided key support for the Neuron Doctrine - the idea that individual neurons were discrete units.

Here is one of Cajal's drawings next to a Golgi-stained specimen of a similar neuron:

(I)Pyramidal neuron from postcentral gyrus, 1899
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
(II) Photomicrograph of a Golgi preparation of postcentral gyrus, from the collection of Santiago Ramon y Cajal
Museo Cajal
from DeFelipe and Jones, Cajal on the Cerebral Cortex, 1988

source: Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Javier DeFelipe, MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1998

Normally, a slice of brain tissue is so tangled with neurons, isolating just one is like trying to trace the branches of a single tree in a forest. The beauty and utility of Golgi's method is that it selectively stains only a few random neurons. The yellowed slice of brain on the right contains thousands of unstained neurons, which remain invisible, while the blackened neuron leaps to the visual foreground with all its twists and forks. In his autobiography, Cajal marveled at "the wonderful revelatory powers of the chrome-silver reaction." Executing this stain in the histology lab is like unwrapping a gift - you never know what graceful branching pattern will appear, nor how many neurons will be stained.

The example above shows how faithfully Cajal's drawings followed his Golgi-stained specimens. Yet the drawings were viewed with skepticism, partly because they were aesthetically beautiful (were they art or science?) and partly because they supported the controversial Neuron Doctrine. Nevertheless, in 1906, Cajal and Golgi shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine - Golgi, ironically, still clinging to the reticular model of neurons that Cajal's work had discredited.

The Golgi stain's crucial value to neurobiology is its ability to simplify the brain just enough to make its complexity accessible. A good scientific artist is like Cajal working with Golgi's stain: the artist plucks one exquisite concept out of a vast morass of jargon and esoteric knowledge, making it visible to non-scientists. To achieve this clarity, the artist must distill a morass of literature and/or data, isolate some key points, and juxtapose and translate them for the viewer. In this process of translation, complexity is lost. So while the simplified result can enlighten viewers by making hidden patterns obvious (as Golgi's stain did for Cajal), it can also disappoint those who are familiar with the depth and detail of the original - those who know there are thousands of neurons in the brain slice, not just one. (And then there are those like Golgi, so deeply committed to their own worldview that they can't see anything else.)

When I read The Waste Land, my familiarity with (some of) Eliot's references in their original context does not, as far as I can tell, diminish the experience of the art - it enhances it, adds another layer to its complexity. Yet I feel that my knowledge of Cajal, Golgi, and the neuron doctrine does not add to Sherwood's work in the same way. It's actually a distraction. The paintings reminded me how interesting Cajal is, at which point I went on the internet and started browsing Cajal's drawings - not Sherwood's paintings. My attention shifted completely from Sherwood's artwork to the scientific illustrations it referenced. That's not the same as my experience of The Waste Land, in which my attention stays on the poem, not its references. And although one could argue that the painting succeeded in getting me thinking about science, I hardly think that was Sherwood's artistic intent - that I look at her paintings for less than a minute and then go start reading anatomy textbooks. That's certainly not the effect the paintings had on Georgiana Kleege!

While Kleege enjoys the mystery and ambiguity of the branching forms in Sherwood's paintings, finding them strange and portentous, I can recognize Cajal's Purkinje cell a hundred feet away. To me, the entire process of wondering and examining and searching for a context for this mysterious shape is bypassed. I don't get to meander along the scenic route, so to speak. And that's too bad, because I don't get to experience the exploratory process that Sherwood may have intended. Did my knowledge of neuroanatomy somehow disqualify me from enjoying the same process of appreciation and discovery as Kleege? Was a relevant scientific background like mine not a help, but a distracting hindrance?

Hush Hush, 2006
Katherine Sherwood

To make things even more complicated, let's pose a related question: should scientific art be required to to stand on its own merits, outside the scientific/social dialogue it invokes? Consider Christy Rupp's sculptures of extinct birds. In his perceptive critique, Christopher Reiger asks whether the art is "wholly successful," and decides perhaps not, except in conjunction with the scientific issues that inspired it:

Her work may be best delivered (and absorbed) in conjunction with the ideas that compel her; I see nothing wrong with that approach. I do wish, however, that there were more outlets for such alliance.

Is artwork which serves mainly to illustrate and provoke a dialogue about scientific issues fully successful as art? If it is less interesting or moving or dynamic when removed from its scientific context - if it needs that background to be successful - is that okay?

The hard thing about this question is that it doesn't just apply to scientific context. There are all kinds of context that add value and meaning to art - personal history may be the best example, although it leads to counterfactuals best suited for happy hour small talk (Would Van Gogh be Van Gogh if he hadn't cut his ear off? What if Frida Kahlo had never been in that bus accident?)

Katherine Sherwood suffered a stroke ten years ago. Does knowing that change your appreciation of the artworks in this post, or not? Are her canvases more (or less) successful with the framing knowledge that, in addition to Cajal's drawings, she works with images taken of her own damaged brain? Understanding an artist's mental state or personal history is certainly relevant to appreciation of the art, but in this case, more so because the artist is using her medical history as raw material. Georgina Kleege again:

At what point do I talk about Katherine Sherwood's disability? . . . After the stroke she had to learn to walk, talk, and paint all over again. She now lays her canvases flat on a work table and paints with her left hand. She circles the canvases seated on an old, wheeled office chair. In press accounts of her work, Sherwood's stroke is often represented as a fortuitous mishap. With the censoring functions of her left brain switched off, her painting became more fluid, her process more purely intuitive. In this interpretation of Sherwood's stroke there seems to be a longing for some sort of divine intervention granting compensatory powers for lost mobility. But Sherwood insists that her work has not really changed that much.

Media accounts of Sherwood's process emphasize her stroke and recovery, as if they define her art, probably because it's infinitely easier to write about art from a human interest perspective. Her personal story is a way to approach the scientific content of her work, to render it universally accessible (note that in telling the story, the press disagree with Sherwood herself about how her work has "changed". Let nothing interfere with a good human interest story!) But does knowing Sherwood's personal history make her artwork better? Does having a background in anatomy make her artwork worse? Is it significant that very few members of the audience will be neuroanatomists, but most will have friends or relatives who have suffered strokes or other brain injuries? How much of our personal knowledge-baggage should we expect artists to anticipate, foresee, and engage with their work?

Katherine Sherwood's paintings are aesthetically lovely, intellectually intriguing, and highly personal. They are all those things at once, and they work on multiple levels for multiple people. The fact that I have a different experience of them than a nonscientist doesn't mean they are unsuccessful. But I do wonder whether it is possible to make an artwork that uses elements of science and is equally powerful for both scientists and nonscientists.

What do you think? Any examples?


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As a paleoartist, I have a few opinions on "science as art." First of all, I don't think the layperson neccesarily views science AS art: the art is there to explain the theory. When you've got a Michael Skrepnick picture of Einiosaurus in a newspaper article describing, well, Einiosaurus, the audience takes that as what the animal basically looked like. To them, it's a photograph, not something interpretable. The picture is there to give context to the typeset.

But if you try to show off the same kind of art in an actual art show (which I have done a few times now), the reaction one gets will be much the same. It's not art, it's a photograph. This is what Nyctosaurus looks like, not one person's imaginary vision of what Nyctosaurus looks like. The lay audience understands the sheer work that goes into a scientific illustration, but it's not art to them. This is frustrating, ultimately, but it does offer the ability to teach with the art. That is always my goal: make the restoration as accurate and up-to-date as possible so that the outcome is able to convey as much correct information as possible.

It's not just Nyctosaurus, it's what half a dozen papers about Nyctosaurus say Nyctosaurus looked like, so this is a pretty good guess as to its specific contours.

Mmmm. Perspective? Which has powerful experiential *and* theoretical connections it can make with viewers. Both in the straightforward usage and in its clever manipulation. Mannerist uses of optics might also be an example?

Zach and Oran, the points you are making are related. I think a lot of perspective and optics are simply "invisible" to viewers - they don't notice them in art any more than they notice perspective in real life. Similarly, they may not notice anything "artistic" about science illustration. Whether "illustration" is "art" is a whole other debate, and an old one at that! :) What I'm focusing on in this post is science-themed art - art that is overtly about science. That might include science illustration, and it might not.

Oran, if you are talking about art that makes use of surprising visual illusions, that might be a perfect example - because the illusion forces the viewer to become actively aware of perspective and visual processing, and it will impact every viewer equally,* even an optics expert (since most visual illusions can't be overridden even if you are aware of the cause). Nice idea!

*unless they are color blind or have no depth perception or something neurophysiological.

To have such an artwork be equally powerful for two persons, one engaging with it on a scientific level and the other not, would require that the scientific level either contribute nothing without diminishing the other aspects such as the aesthetic, or in some strange way have the contribution from the scientific level be interesting but diminish the aesthetic value by its presence in a way that someone who failed to grasp the scientific meaning would miss. Perhaps a work which includes a scientific depiction of a depressing process, like a colorful model depicting cell necrosis in a work on various forms of temporal decay?


There is a weirdly fascinating and somewhat amusing thread on an imageboard which is, I think, relevant to this discussion, here.

The very first picture in the thread parodies a scene in an anime (to which the board is devoted) by replacing the original dialogue -- in which the central character of the tale here thought reindeer were as mythical as the rest of the Santa Claus story -- with one in which she doubts whether .99... = 1. A short proof is demonstrated. Confused members of the audience speak up. There is a long INTERNET ARGUMENT, be warned. At one point, it is very likely that the seemingly incorrect speakers begin to include consciously inflammatory provocateurs. Uninvolved bystanders begin to marvel at the exchange on various intellectual ("I don't understand this, and an impressed at those who can speak knowledgeably of it") and social levels (a posting of a version of the original image defaced, in a way known to regulars of the forum, with child's crayon as drawn by another character created by the same artist who produced the original series being parodied).

The original parody required not only knowledge of the parodied series, but the mathematical content, to appreciate fully. The unintended participatory response thread following it, however, demonstrates that numerous viewers engaged with the work on different levels. I don't think it would be easy to quantify their experiences as in any way equally or unequally powerful, unless one could

By Inflection (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Oh no, inflection, I think the comment gremlins got you. But I liked where you were going with that very much - can you finish your thought?

I'll try to recall...

I don't think it would be easy to quantify their experiences as in any way equally or unequally powerful, unless one could, well, measure qualia. I understand about as much of the joke as could be expected, but does that mean I enjoyed more than someone who didn't?

Imagine, for example, that we repeat the joke with a statement we don't understand: instead of having .9...=1 Tomo rejects some theorem in graph theory, and Chiyo does her part in the joke by pointing to a chalkboard exhibiting the existence of some required graph. I wouldn't understand the math, because I don't do graph theory. But I'd get the joke, and it seems to me like as I imagine the sensation I'd find it about as amusing.

Now, if I *rejected* the science involved, like the objectors in that thread, that would probably detract more than if I simply didn't understand it. Fortunately, as a mathematician I don't have to face that particular problem. ;^)

By Inflection (not verified) on 01 Oct 2009 #permalink

Eadweard Muybridge's living diagrams: a unique series of time lapse photographic images juxtaposing an assortment of animal and naked human bodies in motion against a gridded background. Originally this technique and technology was used to settle an age old question of whether or not a horse left all four feet while galloping. Not soon afterwards however, the explicit nature of these moving images would inspire the creation of celluloid and the early film industry. Some have wondered if Muybridge hadn't also noticed, along side its value as a useful scientific tool, the alluring power of this new medium and whether he used it to satisfy something other than his scientific curiosity and urges.

As a film-maker currently in close collaboration with a marine biologist for an educational project, this is something I face daily. I'm an ardent supporter of both science and art and want my film to be as accurate as possible while being entertaining. But I often have to make use of metaphor and abbreviate lengthy scientific discussion in order to convey the message effectively. This isn't easy, one word out of place can lead to an enormous misunderstanding on the part of the viewer. Or if I were to make the film utterly, completely accurate, the picture would last hours and be very, very dull (going over statistics and charts and the full, laborous history of the subject in question).
I'm shooting for scientific fidelity, but when faced with a large chunk of text, I need to pare it down or completely cut out certain things to keep an emotional resonance in my film. So hopefully I can say a lot with many pictures and fewer words. So far the commentary I'm receiving on the picture has been incredibly positive. I'm just hoping it earns just as positive a reception from the wider public once it's finished next spring.

"But I do wonder whether it is possible to make an artwork that uses elements of science and is equally powerful for both scientists and nonscientists."

Of course it isn't. We all (artist and viewer, alike) come to art as individuals, with baggage and knowledge, triumphs and traumas, experiences and gaps in our knowledge. That has an effect (for good or ill) on both the ability of the artist to express his or her statement, and the ability of the audience to understand and appreciate it.

You mention "The Waste Land." Do you think that a professor of literature or an expert on Eliot has the same experience reading it as you? How could he or she?

Is a piece of art diminshed if, for example, it made points which, say, any competant architect knows but which is not known to the general public? Yes, to the architect, the art would be diminished (or at the very least, different), because there is not that spark of wonder (that 'a-ha' moment you mention); especially if that moment was the sum total of the artist's intended purpose by creating the piece. To someone who is immunized by previous exposure, then, no, the piece doesn't work. What can I say? Not all art works for everyone.

But the reverse can also be true. One must imagine that an animator or photographer might find much more in Dechamps' "Nude Descending a Staircase" than someone not in those fields, solely by virtue of their experiences in those fields. (Or perhaps they would find less in the work.)

All that being said, I think it is possible that the work can be layered so that it provides different (and hopefully equally powerful) things for certain types of people who view it. It doesn't sound to me that the artist did that here, though.

By Woody Tanaka (not verified) on 02 Oct 2009 #permalink

I am an artist and a science information junkie. I would never pretend that I have a full understanding of a scientific idea, but I can offer my expression/interpretation of it. I can also be very much inspired by it, but my end result might have very little to do with the inspirational piece. I would never dare to pretend that my painting is a true statement of a scientific fact or image. In fact, I may process several unrelated pieces of information, or visual inspiration information, but in my mind they would make perfect sense all combined together. I strongly believe that any form of art (especially visual art) is a personal interpretation and that aspect of art is probably unlikely to change in the future. Scientific art should not be an exception. A good artwork has that extra something that appeals or reaches across to different groups of people regardless of their background. There are differences between styles of art, one piece might be a close interpretation (a realistic style), another a very abstract one, yet another is a photographic image. All of those could be good art with that extra something(maybe composition, colors, shapes, scale of shapes in relation to each other, artist's view on the subject)that appeals to many people. That is why one piece of photography is art and another is not. Therefore good science inspired art should also have universal appeal (evoke reaction in people from many different groups). To produce an artwork like that is not an easy task and we will maybe see the artists (or scientists) capable of producing art like that. Also, our reaction to an art piece is highly subjective, at the same time we can be "trained" to like or dislike certain things. Remember all those unrecognized artists, who became famous only after the aesthetic of the majority caught up with their views (some decades, or even centuries afterwards)? Personally, to me art is - to see beauty in unrecognized places (photos of viruses could be very beautiful), interpet it in such a way that the viewer would find it beautiful as well (although the viewer may not recognize the reference, but it is not important). To me true art is always positive, beautiful and uplifting (tragedy, sorrow and struggle could be beautiful as well). I do not consider visual works true art if they simply go for the "shock value" or try to evoke feelings from the viewer by using "below the belt" techniques.

Yes I agree Zak, it is difficult, but the joys and heartaches of experimentation within one's medium of choice and the freedom that that supplies to the creative muse in each of us is indispensable to the work of art and especially to the modern artist. As is the debt or curse as some see it, owed to science for engendering, within modern art and modernity itself, this novel approach and method, that aid in revealing the artist's own individual imagination and inner vision. It may not be the only way of making art "work" for its maker or the audience, but experimentation is an authentic and valued expression for the artist, in how it mirrors and compliments the uniquely tentative and unsettled cultural environment we live in today and of where science plays a tremendously important role in defining the extent of its continuously changing limitations and possibilities.

Apologies, my last post was meant for Erin not Zak. Thanks


"You mention "The Waste Land." Do you think that a professor of literature or an expert on Eliot has the same experience reading it as you?"

Obviously, if you've read the post, you know that no, I don't think everyone's experience is identical. That's actually the whole point of the post. :)

Here's another way of looking at it. There is no obvious reason to expect that people with a scientific education will respond differently to the Mona Lisa than people with a nonscientific education - maybe they do, maybe they don't*. But what about viewers with an education in European history? How is their experience different from the experience of someone who doesn't have a clue when or where the painting was painted? To ask a really complicated question, do they enjoy the Mona Lisa more, or less?

Intuitively, I think that having an education in European history would make one more likely to enjoy the Mona Lisa than not, because having that education would give one a more complicated and nuanced appreciation of it - just as having an education in literature would make one more likely to enjoy The Waste Land than not. The relevant background doesn't mean someone automatically likes the artwork, but at least they would engage it on a deeper and more rewarding level.

That's why I'm puzzled that (as I describe in the post) that frequently I seem to enjoy scientific art less than nonscientists. Why would that be? Is it generally true? Is it because the science used in the art is being handled on a level that I don't find very interesting or complex? If the artist handled the science on a level I would find interesting, would the artwork then be inaccessible to a nonscientist? I don't know the answers to these questions - I'm just throwing them out there.

Regarding the specific question you quoted, "whether it is possible to make an artwork that uses elements of science and is equally powerful for both scientists and nonscientists,"
You answer, "of course it isn't." But I think you misunderstand the question, because your own comment pushes the other way! I'm not hypothesizing an artwork where the experience of viewing it would be identical for both scientists and nonscientists - the experience isn't identical for any two people. I'm hypothesizing an artwork that would have a powerful artistic impact for these very different groups - perhaps by evoking very different aesthetic experiences. Such artworks should exist, right? :) If they don't, why not?

* Since someone is going to bring it up: yes, one could always argue that people who choose to enter science, a fundamentally quantitative activity, were predisposed to like art in general less than those who don't, and that results in a differential experience of the Mona Lisa. But that's a different, more general issue. I'm talking about when a viewer is a specialist in the scientific field that influences the artwork. I would not expect chemical engineers to respond the same as neuroanatomists to a Cajal-influenced painting. Though if they did, that would be awfully interesting. . .

I understand that science-based or science-inspired art must select what it shows and what it doesn't. That you can't show everything.

But it does bug me - a lot - when art gets science wrong. Exactly like your friend for whom "the equations' incoherence was a fatal dissonance". It's like "half rhyme" - a cheat. The equations need to both be aesthetically beautiful and balance.

I've ranted about unnecessarily bad science in movies before. Art needs to add up on all levels, or it's flawed art. That's not to say it can't be good nonetheless sometimes, but it's short of where it should be. IMHO.

Modern science-inspired art can be seen at
It should interest all kind of people.

By Hallstein Hogaasen (not verified) on 02 Oct 2009 #permalink

Thank you an engaging blog. The following comments are equally interesting.

My fellow blogger, a chemist, and I have had a series of discussions/arguments about the scientist/creative divide:

Which in turn encouraged me, the creative/geek, to reconsider my previous assumption of what 'creativity' is:

My digital art collective exhibited for Nissan Design Europe for London Design Festival 2009, and I am struck by the absence of scientific organisations, especially chemists, at this show. Can scientists not be creatives too if they create and imagine just like we do (see my article above)?

Do visit the Nissan East Meets West Youtube channel and watch the talks given by the 'designers' on, yes, biochemistry, computing, cognitive science, anthropology and engineering, and tell me that scientists are not creatives:

I hope that with my current MA project, I can finally bridge the three worlds I love most, CS, SocSci and the arts, together. Why can't everything come from the same place?

"I've ranted about unnecessarily bad science in movies before. Art needs to add up on all levels, or it's flawed art. That's not to say it can't be good nonetheless sometimes, but it's short of where it should be."

I second this. I am an artist in the process of becoming a scientist (I am now a PhD candidate in evolutionary biology) so I can create art that is not "short of where it should be". This is mainly because I finally came to the painful realization that non-scientists can never really understand science, and therefore be 'truly' inspired by it. I think the reverse is true also (scientists who make art).

Much 'science inspired' art can be really annoying to me for some reason. One example that comes to mind was a blurb in a mass media magazine some years back about an artist who "partnered" with some scientists to create a cactus that could grow human hair....I just found it really pretentious, although it's possible I would have found anything by that artist pretentious.

On a lighter note I was not the least bit surprised to find out that the creator of "Sponge Bob" had a BS in marine biology and had spend years teaching children biology using actual tide pools in an educational program. I had suspected as much, and think it's what makes the program successful (for all viewers).

Thanks, Isabel, for the cactus-with-human hair example - hilarious. I have seen *so* many concept art installations like that. I just go, "wha. . . .?"

I do think it is possible to achieve something which is equally stimulating to both a scientist and non-scientist.
I am a paramedic with a background in biology. The human body fascinated me for as long as I can remember.
For me, the physiology and anatomy behind each and every facet of the human body is amazing and intriguing, while for most... its just what moves them around town.

I went to see the Bodyworlds exhibit when it came to my home town with predominately non-science, non-healthcare background people. They were studying the individual parts of the body; meanwhile I was marveling at the creator's choice of colors and poses.

These particular exhibits, I believe, are still being promoted as more of a scientific venue than an entirely artistic endeavor. However, I would assume that if it was promoted as art over science it would've received much more criticism due to the use of real human bodies in its display.

Either way, for me, I saw it as an art that brought life to the field of anatomy in a way which did not distract from its sceintific basis and could be understood and appreciated by both the knowledgable and lay person.

Jessica: "frequently I seem to enjoy scientific art less than nonscientists. Why would that be? Is it generally true? Is it because the science used in the art is being handled on a level that I don't find very interesting or complex?"

I would add that the science could also be erroneous, and off-putting. Lack of complexity is close to that. When discussing whether art can aid science at SciBarCamp earlier this year, I recall artist Paul Walde stating that it's ok for the accuracy of the data to take a back seat to the exploratory paths the art may take. Biologist David Steinman took exception to that, not wanting art to represent the lab.

Modelling and illustrating data are 1st order approximations, and art is removing the science steps further. I think usually this will lead to the art being less complex, and in instances when it doesn't, it would almost necessarily need to lead to the art getting the science wrong.

On th estraightforwad use of perspective in art: of course at some point perspective in art was NOT seen as natural. The first uses of true perspective in painting & drawling music have been seen as pretty radical applications of technical knowledge to the technique of art. It would be interesting to dig around in old writing to see how people reacted to early efforts at art using perspective.

Another interesting thing to look at might be panoramas.

Um, well, I'll take a stab at it. Art that is an artist's personal celebration of science should be evaluated differently than art used to illustrate specific scientific points. There is some amazing stuff that works both ways (Karl Bodmer, for instance). Scientists bring their own aesthetics which tend to be dry and terse: "What's the point?" Artists like to play, however, and if a scientist sees a test tube as a tool, an artist is likely to see a sensual object, a cool-sciencey-tubular visual element that maybe can be made to dance.

It doesn't help the divide that artists are so often profusely full of baloney or that scientists can be such obsessive workaholics.

By Radge Havers (not verified) on 05 Oct 2009 #permalink

I like this series so much. I blog about similar items I think that there is a different part of ourselves that we bring to scientific art than we bring to the creation of a scientific paper. I think it is ultimately just as important. It is one where our minds float through nature uninterrupted by detail, and instead return to a childlike interest in experimentation of fun and beauty. I love nearly every episode of Doctor Who for example, because it makes the effort to get the known science right, but for science we donât yet understand, it lets the craziest imaginative concepts take hold. This is in a way the artists working in sciences job; to go one step ahead of our daily work in the lab.

Here's a pretty cool discussion of early perspective painting . . . I think importantly this was NOT done as a kind of homage to science or a depiction of science but rather was an incorporation of science into art.

Intresting post, but I do not agree with several ideas expressed here such as too much science diminishing creativity,

-I believe poetry is a more accurate description of the world than science because time is not linear. Science is based on linear causality across time, prose like this is linear. Time is not linear and poetry is how language escapes linearity.

-Numbers are a means to an end, art is an end in itself, it is meaning.

i know...
but it's not enough, i know
i love...and it's not little, you know

i'm standing on a dot
but i can see

-I believe art is also crucial for the well being of the brain. We have evolved over time from periods of intense physical activity, where the body was exercised continuously just to find and capture food, to leading sedentary lives. Thus,the effect of no exercise on the body can be clearly seen. As the body gets less exercise, the brain takes a more prominent role, 'thinking' instead of physically 'doing'.

Those were Some thoughts about science and art that the readers of my blog post in it, for reading all the selected ones check the second and third entry.

As expected, the post is terrific, Jessica, and the conversation it has inspired is also good.

My problem with Sherwood's work is simple. It's less inspiring to me than the original artwork she was herself inspired by. The process may have enriched her, but it doesn't do the same for me (at least in grain of salt).

The discussion is particularly interesting to me, as I'm presently reading Wendell Berry's Life is a Miracle, his antagonistic response to E.O. Wilson's Consilience. I like both books very much, despite their fundamental opposition and my taking issue with some of both thinkers' arguments.

The divide Berry wrestles with is, in a nutshell, the same that I yearn to bridge through my art and writing, the chasm elucidated (ooo, sciency word points!) by English poet and critic John Ruskin as "the broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, and truth and faith." Or, as Berry frames it, the realm of experience, love, and poetry versus the realm of scientific reductionism, industrial engineering, and economy. In fact, the more extreme of both Berry's and Wilson's assertions are reductionist; by creating a false dichotomy, both men miss out on the rich overlap and exchange between their respective preferred realms.

Similarly, while I sympathize with your informed response to Sherwood's paintings, your question "Shouldn't good scientific art work for scientists as well as nonscientists?" seems a little misplaced. That is to say, I'm not sure what qualifies as "scientific art" aside from scientific illustration. Scientific illustration aims to illustrate a scientific idea or discovery so that a wide range of viewers (scientists included) can better comprehend a new idea. Therefore it should, as you demand, satisfy scientists and nonscientists alike. Painting and drawing, however, less often traffic in "fact" than they do feeling and notional pastiche. It's hard to expect that language to describe an idea that originates in another.

From an experiential standpoint, which is where poetry would be coming from, I'd imagine, I can't think what "time isn't linear" is supposed to mean.

Whether one this is a means to an end or an end in itself--what's an end? What does that mean? It just sounds like words from some 19th century asthetics discussion that made all kinds of assumptions we wouldn't make anymore.

I don't mean to be hard or cruel--I'm an arts person myself, not a scientist--but I just don't see any use for or meaning in or truth in the hard-and-fast distinctions and oppositions distinctions you make.

Science can inspire or limit, depending on your approach to it. Exploring that inspiring side is the point of the post, I think.

How can poetry escape linearity when it is so full of lines? More lines even than prose?

I really enjoyed the piece, so thank you.

I've been thinking about it for a while now and I wanted to tell you what it made me think about. A large part of my family are Native American, so I have a rather different take on history than most in the U.S. I also happen to be a book nut so I have read a great deal about the past. On top of that I have a couple of degrees in Anthropology. I say this to show that when I read a novel by a Native American person, I come into it with a (nearly) expert point of view, at least compared to the average non-Native student reader.

So I took this class in Native American Literature at one of the universities I attended. The professor, who was a friend, and therefore knew of my background and knowledge, asked me to give a lecture or two on one of the texts. There were several classes on other works before we reached the book on which I was to talk, and one class prior to my talk devoted to âmyâ text. For all of those classes, I didn't talk, I just listened to them react, to the questions they asked, and the ones that they didn't.

For the most part, it was like they were reading completely different texts. There was so much they didn't see at all, jokes they didn't get, political asides missed, moral dilemmas that had no real meaning to them. But what of it?

Most of them enjoyed the books. They were able to see in the books themselves, because that is what they brought to it. And they liked that. They liked being able to imagine themselves as Native American; they liked finding human commonalities with the âOther.â Still, they were not able to see much of what the author probably intended and for me that seems a bit of a tragedy, but I expect it was also part of the reason the books didn't make them really mad instead of happy.

They enjoyed the books in way I could never do. For me the death of a relation in the book comes with the history of the deaths of millions. For many of the students, what they saw was temporary sadness and then freedom. Freedom!

I can't say I enjoy the books less, but I certainly don't enjoy it in the same free and easy way as those students did. I can no longer simply imprint my past on books like this; I am forced with each page to acknowledge a shared world of accumulated actions and their results. In other words, I'm not walking the book by myself but with all the dead beside me.

I imagine that for you looking at science-based art is much the same. I know that Native writers cannot hope to reach the non-Native mind with things the readers simply do not know and sometimes don't care to know. Nevertheless, to have reached out at all, to reach in to a new mind, to share even some small part of what one is, that seems to me where the real value must sit. I think the same expectations should probably be held for those who share science as art.

Mary, thank you for sharing. That is a simply awesome comment, and I have to sit back and digest it a bit.

In the earliest hours of the morning, I orten find myself preparing the educational materials I utilize to train physicians & other healthcare professionals in diagnosis & treatment of balance & movement disorders. It is now 4:32AM-while searching the internet to assemble the best images for teaching, I have encountered Katherine Sherwood's inspired artwork. I find myseld mesmerized with the form & substance of her art. I would ask to share with her my own trial of recovery from a catastrophic illnes which required that I learn to walk again with two prosthetic legs. Not only do I understand the seemingly endless effort required to regain your prestroke independence & dignity,but also I see clearly in your work the "rage of silence" I was taught occurs in many stroke patients but much more significantly the tender mercies of restored perceptions & clarity of thought. God Bless You, Katherine. Please grace us with more of your marvelous art. I will be watching eagerly...

By Randolph McKen… (not verified) on 09 Dec 2009 #permalink

I find it very interesting to read the perspective of scientists interacting with art based off of/inspired by science. From the perspective of an artist, I would like to point out that art has its own context separate from that of science, and therefore needs to be interpreted within its own intention. Many artists working with science as an influence on their work are not making illustrations, they are making art. In that sense, the idea that the art be "accurate" to science must be suspended on the part of the viewer so that the art is regarded for what it is-- for its formal aspects like design and color, its sense of craft and completion, and/or its commentary and interaction with the viewer. Few ask that Matisse's "Red Studio" be more accurate in his depiction of the perspective of the room, as the piece is looked at for the intense color and challenging of artistic convention of the time. The same can be said for Van Gogh's night sky, or Picasso's Cubist forms. Though based on reality, these artists' works are structured in such a way as to explore the idea of the room, the sky, or the body, but not to depict them literally. Realism was not their intention.

So in that sense, the viewer, scientist and non-scientist alike, must consider the artist's intention. If accuracy is not the intention, that is part of the interpretation and experience of the work.

The other consideration is that of post-modernism, which has allowed art to now become a method of commentary and interaction with culture and society at large, including the scientific community and its discoveries. This is not well-understand, however, by those outside the artistic, film, and literary communities who have daily interaction with post-modern concepts and approaches to art and writing.

My brother, a biochemist, has a very hard time when looking at my work, as he is used to being quite literal in his own work and has little experience with art outside of what I show him of my own. He has to work to allow himself to just look and let the work be what it is. Once he does, he has a lot of fun, and that non-linear right brain of his gets a bit of a workout.