April 01, 2006

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Art and Science: Peas in a Pod

"In Search of the Higgs Boson", Digital tapestry by Xavier Cortada

Scientists and artists have a lot in common: an urge to explore the world around them and a fascination with the how and why of things. They may express it differently, but both are driven by creativity.

By Wilson da Silva

IF YOU BOIL IT DOWN to its most basic elements, science and art are not that far apart. Science is a framework human beings use to try and understand the physical universe. Art is a framework human beings use to understand their place in the cosmos.

Of course, there’s a great deal more complexity to the story behind these grand narratives. And there are differences: whereas one seeks to make the physical universe quantifiable and even predictable, the other is more concerned with expressing and representing a diversity of visions and experiences. One seeks to make the universe ordered, understandable and objective; the other revels in unpredictability, uncertainty and subjectivity.

Nevertheless, the two serve humanity well: one makes it easier to fulfil our physical needs, the other fulfils our souls – call them our spiritual and emotional needs.

Some of the most important science comes from intellectual ‘fooling around’. Some of the things we now consider necessary were once thought “useless curiosities that would lead nowhere.”

As with all things in the real world, science is not always utilised as a high moral force: we build bombs and poison forests with the same technical tools we use to grow crops and fashion metals. But art in the public sphere too is not always used for the benefit of humanity; more often than not, it is used to promote products or boost conspicuous consumption.

What is now happening to science is what transpired in art some time ago: science is becoming a commodity. Every year, there is less and less space, fewer resources and less respect given to ‘exploratory science'; the type of research that seeks to understand the universe for its own sake. Now science is increasingly about outcomes, end-goals and the creation of products and markets. Increasingly, that’s how the public perceives scientific research: as something that serves a practical purpose.

And yet, some of the most important, most revolutionary and most useful scientific and technological advances were made by scientists who were questioning very basic things – only to find something extraordinary. As the author Isaac Asimov once said, ‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka! ... but “That’s funny”.’

Some of the most important science comes not from proposing hypotheses, or seeking to improve crop yields. It comes from curiosity-driven exploration: a kind of intellectual ‘fooling around’. Some of the things we now consider necessary and use every day – from plastics to antibiotics, from electricity to the microchips – were once thought “useless curiosities that would lead nowhere.”

Many of these advances inform art, and lead to the birth of new art forms. We are at a time in human history when society is undergoing enormous changes, many of them driven by new technologies; but these destroy old worlds and old ways of doing things as well as creating new ones. The Web is barely a decade old, but already modern societies rely on it; we’ve had an oil-driven economy for 75 years, but we’re already so dependent on it that great cities would grind to a halt if there were shortages. And we’ve had electricity for just over a century – can you imagine living without it?

Both art and science are driven by creativity, and both rely on human perception to turn something innocuous or useless into something significant.

"Titan", Ink on paper, by the NASA Art Program

Basic, exploratory science is the engine that drives such technological progress; it is the well from which applied science and technology draws its ideas. It is also increasingly a well from which art draws many ideas and seeks inspiration. Both are driven by creativity, both rely on human perception to turn something innocuous or useless into something significant.

There are a growing number of science/art collaborations these days, where artists are brought into the lab to spend time with researchers, and come away inspired to create works that give us not only an insight into science, but also a new insight to ourselves. And that’s fine – but it proceeds from the assumption that scientists can’t communicate, and that artists are needed to translate boring old lab work into something the public can appreciate.

But art can also inform science: there are a growing number of cases where scientists have drawn inspiration from art. At the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, computational scientists are developing a display system that relies on human intuition to view, study and understand massively complex data sets such as gigapixel-sized images. These range from supercomputer-generated simulations of fusion energy interactions to high-resolution imaging of the space shuttle moving at high speed through turbulence. They’re been aided by artists to understand an image in an intuitive way, and gain insights that might lead them to better comprehend highly complex problems.

Another project at Britain’s University of Edinburgh draws together neurobiologists, engineers, geographers and computer scientists, to develop new tools that help visualise complex scientific data and the physical phenomena they measure. These include explaining complex radar imagery from aircraft or satellites by using centuries of experience from art and perceptual psychology. The aim is to turn the complex data into visual representations, improving the quality and understandability of images, by adding texture, icons and a three-dimensional elements.

These are fabulous examples of art contributing directly to scientific advances. But art also plays a vital role in helping the general public visualise the extraordinary worlds of science, understand complex discoveries and concepts that would otherwise remain a complete mystery. By this I mean scientific illustrations and graphics of the kind used in a magazine like COSMOS.

None of us will ever see for ourselves a black hole swallowing a double-sun system – we couldn’t, we’d go blind – but an artist can place us safely there to see this cataclysmic event. And none of us will ever see a plesiosaur feeding its large carnivorous aquatic young – but an artist can make you feel as if you were there.

There have even been sounds artists who have created scientifically accurate representations of what long extinct dinosaurs would sound like, based on fossil and other evidence. And there is, of course, digital animation, which most people will recall created the anatomically correct dinosaurs in the film, Jurassic Park.

But these can be manipulated and used for the detriment of society, rather than its benefit. Most of the time, artists and illustrators are diligent about pursuing accuracy in the representation of science. But often – more often than you think – science is a portrayed in a way that is not only inaccurate, but slants the public debate and torpedos scientific advancement. I have to say that the most persistent abusers of this are the media, especially the mainstream media.

Discussions over embryonic stem cells are a case in point. Because the tissue involved is dubbed ‘embryonic’, countless times in the past decade, fully-growing human embryos have been used in imagery to accompany articles in newspapers, websites and magazines (but not in COSMOS, of course). 

In reality, stem cell tissue is taken from the core of a blastocyst – a clump of 150 embryonic cells invisible to the naked eye. They are no more an embryo than my fingernail, and are no more capable of becoming a fully-fledged human being than a scrapping of my skin cells.

“Just as artists of the Renaissance were inspired by scientific advances and the discovery of the New World, so artists of today must be fired by science’s probing into outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, to the origins of our cosmos and the beginning of time.”

Such inappropriate and emotive use of imagery distorts the science and often impedes scientific advancement. As with most clichés so beloved of the mainstream media, they are inaccurate and don’t represent the true depth and complexity of science. But then, the mainstream media has real trouble accurately representing the true depth and complexity of art too.

What’s important is that art and science have a lot to learn from each other, and that it’s not a one-way street.

I’ll leave you with the words of Australia’s leading Shakespearean actor and director, John Bell, who said at the launch of COSMOS magazine in June 2005: “Just as artists of the Renaissance were inspired by scientific advances and the discovery of the New World, so artists of today must be fired by science’s probing into outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, to the origins of our cosmos and the beginning of time.”

Wilson da Silva is editor-in-chief of COSMOS. This opinion is based on a speech delivered at the New Constellations: Art, Science and Society International Conference, 17-19 March 2006, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia.