Wednesday 5 November 2008

ScienceOnline'09 - thoughts on two cultures

In January, I will be co-moderating with Jessica Palmer on a couple of sessions at ScienceOnline'09.

Here are the first thoughts I published to the wiki for Art + Science: online and offline:

A big topic, so I’ll start where I’m familiar. Science opens up new territories for visual language and metaphor.

Using scientific discoveries, diagrams, principles and images to increase the visual language in art. This is something I strive to do with each piece. When taking history of western art 101, I recall being amazed at the idea that the general public of the Renaissance would have understood the significance of an orange on the table in a portrait. Or that much of Michaelangelo’s work was an attempt to portray platonic ideal forms.

Exploring the same sort of method for my work has led me in attempts to personify ‘extinction’ and ‘mitochondrial eve’ as beings rather than concepts, or Haldane’s precambrian rabbit quote as a puzzle. I regularly depict my wife in paintings and drawings holding diatoms, because they are beautiful, delicate, and (thinking of photosynthesis here) essential to life. An example outside of my own work would be Dali’s Christus Hypercubus (scroll down), or Jessica’s Aposematism. The golden ratio gave us this stunning cover composition in Imagine FX recently. In pop culture, I marvel at Davy Jones’ crew in the Pirates of the Caribbean series as monsters difficult to present to a public unaccustomed to detailed images of nature. I could go on.

The reverse is what’s difficult for me to see: how does science benefit from art? From viewing it, and resolving a problem or…?

Is art a parasite on science, except when used as illustration? Many naturalists are painters as well.

Seed magazine’s article by Jonah Lehrer in issue 13 was interesting. So was this Cocktail Party Physics post.

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Here are some more up-to-date thoughts I've been pondering lately, and I will update to the wiki. I think this is a better synopsis for where my head has been.
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The relationship between the cultures of art and science: does art act as a parasite on science? The benefits of scientific findings to the inspiration of art have numerous examples. Popular culture at large may benefit from art inspired by science. But does science ever benefit from art, other than illustration? Can art inspire science?

Good art usually is connected by metaphor and symbolic representations to its subject matter. Metaphor and symbols are by their very nature, imprecise descriptions of the world. Science, on the other hand strives for accuracy and precision. Is art only capable of being a metaphor for a small aspect of a single phenomena, and not the whole?

How does art inspired by, say, palaeontology differ from art inspired by physics? Will an illustration of a Mesozoic landscape always be inherently more precise than a sculpture inspired by quantum phenomena?

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traumador said...

I'm biased towards the Mezesoic, so yes it has greater value than Physics (which is hard with all those numbers and such!) :P

Stephanie Zvan said...

Of course art feeds science. (Bet you never thought I'd say that.) Metaphor is, after all, a means of explaining something that's otherwise difficult to grasp.

Art may not provide the detail, but it can certainly provide the synthesis required for full understanding. Think of the iconic human evolution picture. That's art making manifest a scientific truth that could otherwise be lost in the details.

Art can also provide the awe that inspires people to become involved in science, something that a constant focus on detail will only do for so many people. It can humanize science and remind us that the purposes of science are more than academic. And it can raise, and has raised, questions that directly inspire research.

I would say that the only reasons that science and art remain two cultures are that they don't have to overlap and that each can take a lifetime to master, so very few people pursue both.

Glendon Mellow said...

Time to branch out Traumador! I think physics or math would be good for you, especially since you could use something different than a base of 10.

Glendon Mellow said...

Excellent points, Stephanie.

Does linking together ideas into a whole constitute the same thing as propelling science forward on the back of an artistic idea?

Perhaps Darwin envisioning the tree of life is one example. Kekule picturing the ourobouros as the solution to benzene is another.

I'm not sure directly inspiring research happens too often though. And the fault may not be inaccuracy, it may be artists not always being willing to engage. SF writers seem more likely to explore than artists.

You bring up an excellent point about the two not being required to overlap, and the distance that brings.

Thanks Stephanie. You are widening my focus back out of the tunnel. I've been trying to see the back and forth and you brought up the overlap.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oops. I should have specified what I meant by the inspired research, since I wasn't thinking about biology. Art has inspired quite a bit of perceptual, other psychological and cultural research. There's a reason Jonah titled his book the way he did.

Glendon Mellow said...

I liked Jonah's article about the need for artistic training for scientists in Seed a while back. I keep seeing this book in Book City; maybe I'll pick it up soon.

Thanks Stephanie!

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