Science is about images and expresses itself through images. Until quite recently, however little attention was paid to the images in their own right or to their possible artistic or aesthetic qualities. Two new exhibitions, ‘Beautiful Science’ on show in the Folio Society Exhibition Hall at the British Library and ‘Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration from the University of Cambridge’s Museums’ at Two Temple Place, London, show how popular the art/science interface has become.
As you enter the mezzanine of the magnificent neo-gothic mansion at Two Temple Place, you are greeted with Watson and Crick’s revolutionary model of the double-helix model of DNA. Visitors to the exhibition stand and admire the intertwining metallic structure in its glass case as they would a work of art. The message conveyed by this exhibition and that I hope to show is that this is neither an interpretation of a scientific study nor a work of art; it is both.
Images can convey and manage detail in a way that isn’t possible with words. An illustration provides the scientist with an ability to demonstrate not only the most important concepts, but the importance of certain details within a larger context.
Although once regarded as two diametrically opposite worlds, in recent decades the share languages of art and science has been conveyed and key to this perception are visual images.
The relationship between art and science all comes down to one simple fact: the power of the visual image. The moment a dense block of text is transformed into a flowing image or diagram, it immediately becomes more accessible, more understandable and less threatening.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at ocean currents. Upon accessing the Wikipedia page for ocean currents, you are greeted with just over 3,000 words of text. Blocks of text make the words swim together, their detail and complexity lost. Now, compare this to a video produced by NASA in 2011, ‘Perpetual Ocean’ (shown below). The ethereal beauty of the wispy traced currents produce a beautiful description of the same process. Yes, some of the intricate detail is lost, but when the concept immediately becomes accessible, is this a loss acceptable?
This question brings into focus what it fundamentally means to be a scientist and to make and represent a discovery. What is the aim of an illustration you produce? Is it going to stay within scientific circles or is this indeed going to be accessed by the public? Throughout the media, though it must be emphasised that this is not just a modern practice, our interest is piqued by images that don’t truly represent the facts hidden behind them, but that abbreviate them or make them comprehensible. Let’s use the Hubble Telescope as an example. For decades, Hubble has produced images of the cosmos that has inspired interest in astrophysics to flourish in anyone, regardless of their background. The visualisation of scientific discovery is creating some of the most effective visual images of our time and reinventing the awe-inspiring and overwhelming effects of the sublime.
The image above shows the Cat’s Eye Nebula, as produced by Hubble. It shows everything we expect from such an image; fabulous scale, vivid colours and a breathtaking beauty. However, if we were to head out to the Cat’s Eye in a spaceship and gaze out the window, we may be slightly disappointed. Since nebulae such as these emit light in wavelengths outside the visible range – which covers the infrared spectrum, ranging from blue at one extreme to red at the other – NASA has had to manipulate these images to generate these inspirational images. So, we have a global scientific organisation that presents its findings in a way that subverts the importance of the raw data. But is this really a bad thing? The intimate relationship that science shares with art has opened up this world for a huge swathe of the population. Regardless of the intricacies of the physics behind the generation of this nebula, is it not the duty of physicists to attract attention to their discoveries, lest their discipline die out? Furthermore, in an age where public and government funding is limited, don’t scientists have a responsibility to explain their discoveries to society?
To this writer, that is the true meaning of being a scientist, or to make a discovery. What use is it producing an image that is accessible to only scientific circles? Yes, you would receive attention and adoration from those whose respect you are working to garner, but at what cost? If you withhold information from a large proportion of the public, you are doing your discipline a disservice. Without the influence of art on scientists, science as a concept would not hold the reputation and the importance in society that it does. It is difficult to imagine a world where our hopes for a brighter future are not placed on one form of scientific advance or another, a belief that has been established largely through the production of scientific images.
This idea of accessibility is one that clearly remains prominent in the minds of those producing illustrations. Taking the map provided to John Snow [below], who theorised that cholera was water based, by Henry Acland as an example, it is clear to see that scientists have continually striven to make their discoveries as accessible as possible. In the map, Acland has placed a bar over each household that contains someone suffering from cholera during the Broad Street outbreak of 1854. Acland and Snow’s data is overlayed on top of an existing map and acts to further illustrate the significance of their findings. Though findings of this kind were generally reserved for a specialist audience, using cartographic endeavour such as this serves to drive home the point that each of these blocks represents a human inhabitant of one of these households, afflicted with this disease. It goes to show that where raw scientific data fails to acknowledge the human element of discovery, art and its influence excels.
It is interesting to contrast John Snow’s map with another exhibit in the British Library exhibition and to therefore see that Snow’s map was, in fact, bucking the trend. Florence Nightingale, a contemporary of John Snow, was in the process of revolutionising how data was presented. Her statistical analysis and presentation of mortality [an example of which is shown below] both in the Crimean War, where she served as a nurse, or back in England paved the way for presentation of such data and remains the common template today. Though undoubtedly factually correct and statistically useful, her data is also undeniably drab. This seems a bizarre thing to claim for such important findings, but it is an important example of how visual presentation interprets and clarifies the significance of a scientific discovery.
Though it cannot be emphasised enough that art has played a huge role in the accessibility of new scientific endeavours for as long as the two have co-existed, the two are now inexorably linked, with the generation of digital design. Earlier, I described the importance of providing detail of a discovery, while emphasising its importance to what already exists. This is the benefit that graphical illustration provides. In today’s world of computer generated images, scientists can provide illustrations that allow you to take control of the details you require. A fantastic example of this is found at OneZoom which provides users with the ability to zoom to vastly intricate detail on the ‘Tree of life’, whilst always maintaining the knowledge of how what you are viewing is related to the bigger picture. Digital imaging, therefore, is not only contributing to a new epoch in art, but is also strengthening the relationship between art and science.
Art and science are the two greatest areas of human creativity – together they are bringing the most important discoveries of our culture to an amazed, grateful public.
‘Til next time…