Monday 27 September 2010

Scientific accuracy and art

When you type the word "trilobite" into Google's Blog Search, The Flying Trilobite is currently the first to come up.

But I stick wings on them.
Like this:

And this:

all these.

Sometimes, other things happen.

Don't I have any sense of responsibility?  At this moment, I have the first blog to come up about trilobites, and what am I doing?  Cackling away while putting wings on aquatic arthropods in my oil paintings.  Irresponsible.  Think about the children! 

So what's it for?  

What does my tagline, "Art in Awe of Science" even mean if I am going to subvert the science?  The science of paleontology reveals through careful examination what life was like long ago, and how its remains have been preserved. Then I hop in, and start painting wings that didn't evolve for almost another 500 million years on the beasties. 

Should I take more care, and somehow display "Art in Awe of Science" with more reverence to the truth?  Is the communication of scientific ideals by artists and illustrators the pinnacle of what sci-art is all about?  

What is science-art for?  Scientific illustration, its fraternal twin has clear goals, and laudable ones.  Scientific illustrations communicate with rigor and accuracy ideas which will aid the scientist.  Sure, the scientific illustrator eliminates some of the oozy guckiness of the human body when revealed in diagrams, but this is to enhance and clarify the relevant internal landscape of the human body for the surgeon.  Laudable. 

Science-art is for something else.  Is it the communication of information?  

Roger Malina informs us that next year, NSF Informal Education Division is sponsoring an art-science workshop, entitled, "Art as a Way of Knowing", to be held at the San Francisco Exploratorium.  Is science-based art a "Way of Knowing"?  

What do you know when you look at say, a winged trilobite?  

You know, I could just say screw it:  everything is just representation, removed from reality, held at arm's length by our senses, and artwork is even further removed.   The scientific illustrator who carefully 3D renders a pristine skeleton is creating just as much an obfuscation of reality as it really really is as I am with my art-hack little flying trilobites. So there. 

Except for the scientific illustrator, teaching and clarity are goals. 

What are my goals? (art-hack)

According to the title of the NSF-sponsored workshop, apparently what I do may be a Way of Knowing.  But I feel that's putting the goal a little too strongly. You might say it's Making the Goal.  

Way of Knowing.  That's a tall order. 

I think a "Way of Knowing" is putting the (painterly, Impressionistic) cart before the (fully-3D-rendered, proper lighting and gamma) horse.  

I think the purpose, the path, the roadway of science-art is as a Way of Exploring.  

It's a way for the science-artist to explore forms:  to marry and synthesize separate ideas in to a new idea, because we're human, we're awesome and we can do that.

It's a way for the viewers of science-art to explore what they see, how they reconcile their knowledge and become intrigued and curious and oh my! who would have thought. They can explore how the dabs of mineral and plant oil reflect light and shapes and plug into the visual centers to show them something that isn't dabs of minerals and plant oil.

As a Way of Exploring, science-art is for scientists a way of facing a mirror of absurdities that realigns thinking on research, its a way of marrying the disparate to ponder how it would be possible. 

©  Glendon Mellow.  Oil painting of an ammonite-form on California Gold slate. 

- - - - - - - -

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


Print Shop


traumador said...

I think the other point about science art you've brought up in the past, but not here, is that you're using modern scientific understanding to coin new modern artistic language/conventions... rather than use artistic constructs from hundreds of years ago.

"What do you know when you look at say, a winged trilobite?"

The average person should hopefully recognize a Trilobite as something related to a "bug" (the most common decription I get from ppl who don't know exactly what a Trilobite is). Even if they don't realize this is an extinct invert, they should catch onto the neat synthesis you're Flying Trilobites {FT} represent.

No bug has bones or wings made out of bones. Yet you present a representation of one that is "plausible". This hopefully will cause some sort of consideration.

Despite the fact these days bugs with bones is an evolutionary impossibility (in our geologic era anyway), if as Stephen J Gould famously said, we rewind the tapes of history there is nothing stopping basal bugs from developing the means to evolve such structures. At least when given the right adaptive pressures.

The average person may not take that last bit out of your FTs, but hopefully they'll recognize the impossiblity you've woven into this piece, but yet the possibility it also represents. Though mammals and "bugs" are desperately seperate relations as far as animals go, on the grand tree of life we're very connected.

You're piece highlights the potential diversity of life, while yet emphasising its commonality. Evolution is both the great divider and the great unifier all at once!

That and Flying Trilobites are cool :P

Emily said...

Well said, Glendon.

Tommy Leung said...

I'm sure what I'm going to say already mirror a lot of what's already in your post...but here goes anyway...

It's funny your post came when it did, just two nights ago I was having a conversation with a friend about the interplay of art and science. We're both scientists - as in that's our day job: she's a recent Masters graduate working as an environmental consultant with her partner, and I'm a new faculty member just starting up my lab at a university. However, we both have various artistic outlets as hobbies.

We were talking about how our work heavily influence our art, but occasionally, it works the other way too. Sometimes, a bit of our arty side creep in while we're thinking about science. Despite what many people that are not familiar with the profession might think, science is actually a very creative process and I see a lot of parallels between art and science. I think as scientists, artistic expression allows us to explore the more murky and abstract realms of reality, alternative worlds as it were, which in turn shed light upon our work.

As for your Flying Trilobite, I've always find it to be quite playful, a bit like your Cambrian rabbit. I once decided to draw a series of organisms I came to call "improbable creatures" just as a way to see how well I know my topic - evolutionary biology. The challenge was to come up with organisms that *could have* evolved but *have not* for one reason or another. During the course of that, I thought a lot about my research and my field in ways I usually wouldn't, and I also found out that a lot of the creatures I came up with turn out not to be so improbable after all. Just as play serves an adaptive function in many species of animals, I think occasionally being playful with science and expression of science is healthy to the scientific method.

Glendon Mellow said...

" Evolution is both the great divider and the great unifier all at once" - Traumador, that's a great line.

Thanks, yeah, creating a new artistic visual vocabulary that people who understand evolutionary biology is one of my favourite targets to aim at.

Thanks, Emily!

Thanks for the kind words, Tommy. The scientific method is *so* creative! Sometimes I sit and ponder how I would eliminate each factor from an experiment and it's difficult.

I'd love to see the "improbable creatures"! Willing to share?

Exploring alternative worlds, as you say, brings up another interesting topic on my mind lately: when does science-art cross over into science fiction?

Brian George said...

Great article and wonderful artwork. This topic is something I think about often. As an artist who is fascinated by the intersection between science and art, I've made artwork that is on both sides of this 'fence'. Using exaggeration to make a point or using completely implausible representations for some humor is just as valid as anatomical drawings. They both serve a purpose and they aren't mutually exclusive.

Tommy Leung said...

Well, one of the "improbable creature" (I'll try and find those pictures and e-mail them to you when I get home) I thought of was a brood parasitic marsupial; a dasyurid which sneak up to a sleeping macropod, give birth to relatively precocious babies which would crawl into the pouch, kill and/or devour the young and take over. I thought it was pretty improbable until I found out about the Cuckoo catfish which does pretty much exactly that. I was pretty impressed with that little fish and decided to write a blog entry about it on the Parasite of the Day blog:

I was also going draw a vertebrate, likely a teleost fish or something aquatic, with photosynthetic symbionts, trying to work out how it would work, how the symbiont might become established, and thinking that it would be quite improbable (but not impossible). However Mother Nature beat me to it, and it's an amphibian:

I didn't draw many of those beasties, it was a combination of having to attend to other academic commitments or being distracted by other things, but I still constantly think about them. Though now that I've started lecturing, I've always thought about incorporate it into lectures about macroevolution.

Glendon Mellow said...

Well said Brian, and thank you for introducing me to your work! I've added your blog to the science-artists feed, which appears also on

Fascinating stuff, Tommy - the ideas of what's possible are sometimes found it to already be possible - I like that. If you email them, I could feature them on a Flying Trilobite post if you're game.

Tommy Leung said...

Well, I didn't end up drawing many of those "Improbable Creatures" simply because I keep running into "Oh, what about...oh wait that already exist/existed but now extinct" - and I never got around to actually drawing that "photosymbiotic fish" because I got "scooped" by Mother Nature so to speak.

I did however started up a new series call "Creature Concepts" where I did more free-style drawings of whatever came to mind. Many of the body plans I came up with were inspired by real organisms, but because the "ground rules" I had set were different, they did not have to be as scientifically rigorous as those in "Improbable Creatures"!

Glendon Mellow said...

Interesting that the scientifically rigorous rules you set for yourself limited what you decided to draw, Tommy.

Real organisms have such amazing variety, but at this point in history, our understanding has grown enough that we can identify many things as implausible if we can't imagine the mechanism. Hmm.

Sarah Snell-Pym said...

I did a little evolutionary tree of little creatures in the margins of my paleobiology notes and then hubby informed me that MC Escher had done something very similar way back when ;)

I view Art and Science as the layer below Creative.

Things could be worse - you could be trying to put across science concepts via poetry - the poets get lost and the scientists are 'why don't you just say it straight' ;)

I tend to advocate anything that makes you think which your flying trilobite definatly does. The other thing is you are not saying your pictures are science, it i very clear from the sub-title on your blog and things what is going on.

Plus as someone else mentioned even if you think of it as not having the goals like those of the scientific illustrator there is great capacity for your drawings as say journal covers and things like that. I have been to so many lectures where they use this sort of fusion to make a point and have infact been doing so since Victorian times.

Art and science feed off of each other because they make you think, make you explore patterns and really look.


Glendon Mellow said...

Thank you Saffy - really insightful points!

There is a long tradition of artwork in a similar vein to my own. Glad it's also obvious what I'm up to when you first log in.

Post a Comment

Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Glendon Mellow. All rights reserved. See Creative Commons Licence above in the sidebar for details.
Share |