Friday 15 May 2009

SciBarCamp: can art benefit science?

This post is meant as a summation and continuation of the session I suggested at SciBarCamp last weekend. Please feel free to send me an email or make a comment regarding any corrections, attributions or new thoughts based on the talk. For those who read The Flying Trilobite and were not at SciBarCamp, please jump right in. You can read tweets about the art session and other sessions here.

(Not all ideas below are my own, and I may not be quoting directly, but grabbing the idea from my quickly scribbled notes. I'll attribute where I can, and feel free to correct in the comments)
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Notes on the session:

->Tried to lay a quick ground rule that although I'm sure we agree any human activity requiring skill can be described as being performed "artfully", we should be talking about things usually associated with art: visual image-making, performance, music. Not the art of being a chef, "she's like an artist preparing those cell cultures" or stuff like that.

->Posed 4 questions to kick things off.
1) Can art direct research?
2) How can art advance the basics of science? Will there be written a Harry Potter-sized success about science?
3) For the scientists in the room - have you invited artists into your lab or research space?
4) Does art obfuscate understanding? Does it do more benefit than harm?

->Previous to this session, I had only heard of one specific instance of art directing an area of research (see comments here), which I related to our group. Artist Paul Walde opened the topic wider, and pointed out that that's what science fiction does all the time. Communication devices. Google maps from Snow Crash. Space elevators.

->Walde: By imagining things we've never seen, and explaining them, we form a sort of hypothesis similar to scientific hypothesis. By imagining, understanding.

-> Reflecting now, I wonder whether biology from science fiction will come into its own some time this century, the way technology already has.

->Jim Ruxton mentioned artist Ned Kahn's environmental work, making people stop and think about the breeze blowing down a street they might use every day. Calling attention to scientific principles using beauty to make people question.

->Joel Sachs described Feynman's drawings of gravity and its behaviours as an example of art clarifying though not literally being accurate. Laurence Middleton mentioned a horse's kidney looking more like what we think of as a kidney than our own. Art can clarify by reducing, especially in medical illustration.

->Artist Paul Walde and biomedical simulator David Steinman debated the importance of accuracy in science-art.
Walde states that many scientific experiments are themselves fictions; removing conditions that may affect the data is unreal.
If it's inaccurate to the data, scientists will not necessarily want you in their lab, Steinman argues. Experiements are 1st order approximations, art further removed.
Which is why scientists have such bad P.R.! artist/science cheerleader Star Spider laughs.

-> Are art and science two cultures? This came up. Surprisingly when I compare it to the consensus at the ScienceOnline09 session, the answer here at SciBarCamp was yes, they are driven to be that way in popular culture now. They aim for different things.
Steinman points out that unlike previous centuries in science, scientists now have little training to do their own drawings from nature, the night sky or microscope lens.
Middleton suggests it is because there are fewer generalists now, and people are forced to specialize as much as possible.
I wonder if that's why so many people switch careers at different points in their life?

->I mentioned that although there are exceptions,
in fine arts there's sometimes a "Frankenstein" idea of science. Eva Amsen sent tweets, and had a brief exchange with Beagle Projecteer Karen James during the session about the session! (This what I love about Twitter.)

->Almost invisibly, science and especially chemical technology drive painting. Consider the story of the colour mauve, which only became available to painters in the late 1800's. The 1890's Symbolists are sometimes referred to as painting in the "Mauve 90's". Many red paints fade quickly, and are known in painting as "fugitive colours". Modern reds made from quinacradone, are now widely in use because the do not suffer from this problem.
Sachs joked he wanted to commission a painting called "Fugitive Colour" painted entirely in this pigments, I guess so he could watch it fade to a stain.

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A great session everyone! Lots to think about. I felt my brain stretch. Head here for some more photos.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.

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Justin said...

There's a great article in The Maui News about a scientist collaboration that's furthering research on lunar dust-- and they're making art prints available from their work:

Great post!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for pointing out that article, Justin. Amazing images.

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