Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Examples of visual art inspiring science

Following my last post, "Visual art leading research - it's not happening", I thought it may be useful to compile a list of examples of visual art -painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, collage- that directly influenced the course of scientific research somehow.

I would love to hear of any more!

Triceratops butting heads.
Inspired by scientific illustrator Bill Parsons and others.
Research subsequently done by Andrew Farke to detemine whether or not triceratops could butt heads together as scientific illustrations commonly suggest. Andy suggested this example to me here.

Medieval Islamic Architecture decoration and Penrose Tilings.
Found in medieval Islamic architecture, and described by Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt. They realized that these tiles pre-date the "Penrose Tilings" discovered by Roger Penrose in the 1970's by about 500 years.  This example isn't a direct-link of visual art leading research, however, since the significance of the geometry was only noted by Lu and Steinhardt after Penrose investigated the pattern. I think it shows how visual art can possibly lead to fruitful areas of research.

Painting with penicillin: Alexander Fleming.
Possibly inspired by the syphilis-stricken artists he cared for, Fleming began to paint with bacteria when he wasn't using watercolours.  The pattern that emerged, a dark sun, led to his discovery of antibiotics. Article by Rob Dunn, Smithsonian Magazine. Suggested to me by science-artist James King.

Are there more?

* Please note: the opposite phenomena, namely artists being influenced by science is much, much more common, even though our modern culture often suggests that art + science are separate cultural realms. I'm not specifically searching for those examples here.  For that, I maintain a Science-Artists Feed.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow

10 comments:

brendanblue said...

There was a magazine around until 2001 called The Sciences put out by the New York Academy of Sciences that was richly illustrated with fine art. Somehow, penetrating the thick loam of reading on new from varied disciplines of the sciences -- often quite technical -- was mediated or even assisted by the classic imagery. Makes me think that the links between art and science in the brain are much more intertwined than previously imagined. Ever hear of those impromptu orchestras which usually form during medical conventions? My uncle, a retired neurosurgeon, is a devoted musician these days.

ideonexus said...

The European Space Agency published a report last year where they were actively looking for technological inspirations from classic science fiction. The report is a free PDF at

ESA SF and Science

A highlight from the report:


Although early writings were often wildly inaccurate in many areas, some of the predictions made did come to pass and some of the systems and technologies described were subsequently successfully developed. Examples include ultra-high-velocity projectile launchers (1865); retro-rockets (1869); planetary landers (1928); rocket fins for aerodynamic stability (1929); vertical assembly buildings (1929); clustered rocket boosters (1929); EVA, pressure suits, life-support tethers (1929); construction of orbital space stations complete with living quarters using material ferried up and regular service visits (1945); satellite communication, with the satellites in geostationary orbit (1945); solar- and light-sails (1920, 1951, 1963); multiple-propellant storage tanks (1954); streamlined crew modules for atmospheric entry (1954), and so on.


There was also the "Design and the Elastic Mind" exhibit at the MoMa, which has a lot of great examples of artists and scientists inspiring each other:

MoMa Design and the Elastic Mind

I took took a bunch of photos at this exhibit (CC licensed):

MoMa flikr set

With these examples, there may not be a clear cut case of art inspiring science, but more of a synergy with art and science inspiring one another in a feedback loop.

Glendon Mellow said...

Brendanblue, I agree I love fine art illustrations with my science. It enhances the learning experience, but I think that's still a little different than what I'm looking for here. Well said, and thanks!

Ideonexus, I agree about science fiction's influence wholeheartedly. Not really visual art though.

Great shots of the MoMA exhibit! I recognize some of James King's work there. I'll have to pour over that. I'm sure a lot of it is art inspired by science, but it will be interesting to see if the door swung the other way with those intriguing projects.

Thanks for the link!

Jason R said...

Don't have anything specific, but I bet that cave paintings like at Lascaux have inspired some lines of research on paleobiogeography. Perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphs have done so too?

Cf., http://boingboing.net/2011/01/20/pygmy-mammoths-in-an.html

Glendon Mellow said...

Awesome Jason!

Bingo. I think that's very true. It's not inspiring the research through use of metaphor, but, similar to the medieval Islamic tiles I noted above, through western science exploring the images on 2 levels: what did they mean to the artisans, and what can they tell us now?

Brilliant example.

ktraphagen said...

NOTE: this began as an excerpt from an email I sent Glendon.

It seems to me you are purposefully limiting (or rather defining) "art" as fine art. If I understand you right, you are looking for ways that visual (typically 2D fine art) might inspire scientific research and affect the direction of investigation.

What if we expand this working definition of art to include design/architecture? If so, then a movie/TV set designer's art could be considered (or a prop designer). For example, consider some of the props in the original Star Trek. We saw pneumatic medicine delivery equipment (hypospray) in the shows of the 1960s way before children were commonly given needle-less vaccinations (the patent did exist in 1960, but was not in common use at the time of the TV show).

How about the tablets for reading books in Star Trek? Didn't that develop into the technology for our current eReaders? I know we are looking at the final products and not the science research, but somewhere along the way someone had to do some research about medical delivery systems (and they very well may have been inspired by what they saw on TV).

I need to catch up on some of the other commenters' links. Great thoughts.

Glendon Mellow said...

Hey Karyn!

Thanks for your thoughts on this. Let me see if I can answer. Your words in italics.

It seems to me you are limiting (or rather defining) "art" as fine art. If I understand you right, you are looking for ways that visual (typically 2D fine art) might inspire scientific research and affect the direction of investigation.

Not just fine art - it could be scientific illustration even, but usually that is derived from research, it doesn't suggest new fields of inquiry. The different types of art I usually consider I outlined in this post: "What is Science-Art?"

I try to be really picky with my definition of "art" that I discuss in each post. One, I want to avoid the "everything is art in a way" sentiment that encompasses cooking, designing a personal fitness program, and making cell cultures, and two, a lot of people online (not you in this comment though) conflate the specific term of "fine art" with the larger umbrella term of "art" and they are not the same. Scientific illustrations are not fine art. That's not an insult, it's different taxonomy.

When I discuss "science-art" I'm kind of coming at it sideways, and picking some fine art, most scientific illustration, some comics, some objects + images created through traditional scientific techniques, etc. and categorizing them that way.

I don't find that too limiting: it's a huge and growing field of visual art. So huge, and so rich in its history, it's curious to me that finding examples of art being influenced by science are easy, and finding examples of science being influenced by art is difficult.


What if you expand your working definition of art to include design/architecture? If so, then a movie/TV set designer's art could be considered. For example, some of the props in Star Trek. We saw pneumatic medicine delivery equipment (hypospray) in the shows of the 1960s way before children were commonly given needle-less vaccinations (the patent did exist in 1960, but was not in common use at the time of the TV show).

That's a pretty good example. Hard to say if that's more of a written example (script) or design. Maybe it is design.

What do others think? Does movie concept design and set & prop design need to be considered science-art?

Feldspar said...

I think we need a new term like "engineering-art" or "design-art" that could encompass architecture and set/prop design.

I think certainly the electronic pads used for reading in Star Trek would count as "engineering-art" as they have inspired the design of e-readers. Where as concepts such as tricorders would be more like science-fiction-writing, rather than visual-art.

I have often wondered if any of the spaceship designs portayed in sci-fi movies/TV have be used for inspiration by engineers, does anyone know?

Viveka said...

You will find plenty of examples of art preceding and driving science in the proceedings of the SIGGRAPH conference.

My favourite is Myron Krueger, who invented real-time interactive computer vision in the mid 1970s because he needed it for an artwork, VIDEOPLACE.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for the tip, Viveka! Do you have any links where I could find the examples?

Video games do indeed require types of art to be created. I'm not sure it falls under the traditional-style of art I was looking for, but that's an intriguing idea. Thanks.

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