A Science Junkie’s Guide to Art

Some of the best things in the world exist at intersections between disciplines. My favorites emerge from the union of art and science. It is at the heart of this intersection that artists and scientists come together in order to make explanations of our world all the more rich through art.

Artistic depictions of constellations help us understand positions of stars over time. (CC)

Artistic depictions of constellations bring us closer to understanding our universe by making the night sky more relatable and navigable. (CC)

Take for example constellations. Through my childhood, I was fascinated with the universe. Instead of bedtime stories, I would ask, “Daddy, tell me about space!” He taught me many things about black holes and moons and life cycles of stars, but more than anything I remember the constellations. We lived in a rural canyon with clear night skies. Moonless nights meant more stars than you could ever hope to count — and indeed more stars than my young mind could recognize without help.

Fortunately, help was close. I had a poster of ‘Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere’ tacked to my bedroom ceiling (complete with glow-in-the-dark stars). With the light on, I could see every character’s name and a portrait overlaying the corresponding stars. With the light off, hundreds of small points glowed back at me, and in the dark I would try to remember the patterns and strange names.

Egyptian hieroglyphs from between 1500 and 1609 BCE represented agricultural growing seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Egyptian hieroglyphs from between 1500 and 1609 BCE represented agricultural growing seasons.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Science illustration itself has a long tradition, reaching back millennia from celestial pictograms to agricultural records of the seasons. If you will be in New York before October, the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibit with 400 years of scientific illustration. If you won’t be in traveling through the Big Apple anytime soon, the AMNH has published a companion book (with a bonus century!) of rare science illustrations from their collection.

It is easy enough to buy a poster, or visit a museum for your science art fix. For some, however, passive viewing is not enough. Last September while hiking near San Francisco, I met a woman with an integrated DNA-circuit board design etched into her back. Literally etched. “Why scars? Why that design?” I asked. “I wanted something other than an ink tattoo. The design is a combination of my interests in bio and tech.” She works at Kaiser improving healthcare technologies.

Still curious, I asked her about the scarification process. “You have to go to an expert and have it done professionally,” she told me seriously. Her scars were made on the East Coast by peeling back several layers of skin, and then scraping away the underlying flesh. The top layer is folded back into place, and after several weeks of healing, delicate white scars begin to form. “Some of the details are beginning to fade,” she added. Eventually, over many years, the curves of the double helix and circuit nodes will sink back into her skin. It is poetic, in a sense, that the regenerative properties of her body will reclaim the homage made to them.

Tattoos themed in science are becoming increasingly popular. (CC)

Tattoos themed in science are becoming increasingly popular. (CC)

 While scarification is perhaps more rare, the world of science tattoos is alive and well. In 2007, well-known science writer Carl Zimmer began compiling images and stories behind various tattoos science enthusiasts have accumulated over the years. The results were splendid and zany enough to fill an entire book, Science Ink, which boasts the best by discipline.

“Art” is an all-encompassing term that embraces many media. So far I have focused on the illustration sides of science. There are several other artistic science scenes, and one of my favorites is sound. You can make any math geek’s day by sending them this catchy a cappella love song laden with higher-order math puns. On the programming side, computer music and audio tech continue to mature, giving us gems like the Re: Sound Bottle and sine wave water.

Bathsheba Grossman's 3D-printed sculptures tie algorithms with aesthetics to create math-inspired art. (CC)

Bathsheba Grossman’s 3D-printed sculptures tie algorithms with aesthetics to create math-inspired art. (CC)

Another venue for science art is in sculpture. Take for example the recent collaboration between MIT and Disney to create awesome character models using multi-material 3D printing. And have you ever seen a cube walk on its own? Cubli is here to cure you of that ‘not yet’.

Science art is also creeping into the digital world. Where once artists relied on paper and pigments, we now have digital cameras and high-resolution touch screens to aid discovery. For example, my favorite author, Simon Winchester, recently collaborated with skull collector Alan Dudley and photographer Nick Mann to produce an iPad app named Skulls. The application harnesses recent developments in 3D visualization and user interactivity, as well as traditional text and narration, to explore new bounds of science education through art.

The Amoeba Network, by Maki Naro, is an example of comic art as an explanatory platform for science (shared with permission from sci-ence.org).

The Amoeba Network, by Maki Naro, is an example of comic art as an explanatory platform for science.
(Shared with permission from sci-ence.org.)

Scientific webcomics are on the rise, as well. There are, of course, the wonderful standards like XKCD, PhD Comics, and The Oatmeal. Fortunately, many of these comics are actually comical. One of my personal favorite artist/authors is Maki Naro. He recently moved from his popular blog, Sci-ənce, to the Popular Science blog, Boxplot, where he continues to operate “at the intersection of art and science in an attempt to act as a mediator between the two.”

It seems this mediation drives many scientists who later turn their creative efforts to the arts. Scientific American illustrator, Jen Christiansen, just wrote about the pull between the disciplines, and how she instead decided to merge art and science. The same seems to be true of trained neuroscientist Greg Dunn, who opted to replace his pipette with the paintbrush, and has carved a corner in many hearts with his shimmery, beautiful, Ramon y Cajal-reminiscent paintings of brain.

The intricate patterns in kolams, traditional Indian chalk drawings, are helping scientists better understand protein folding. (CC)

The intricate patterns in kolams, traditional Indian chalk drawings, are helping scientists better understand protein folding. (CC)

Those who practice science art bridge worlds that are cerebral and theoretical with those that are aesthetic and tactile. We rely on artists to imagine distant worlds for us, or to reanimate scenes that have long since faded back into the soil. Art can help us understand the scientific beauty of a flower (with a little help from that fine man, Mr. Feynman), or even help improve our science.

I have an astronomy artist to thank for one of the great joys in my childhood. Because of that constellation poster, I now recognize Cetus the Whale, the galaxy in Andromeda’s armpit, and how to spell Cassiopeia. I consider this a triumph for science art in educating a young girl who was curious about the cosmos.

Jahlela is a recent graduate of the  cognitive neuroscience program at the  University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

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5 Responses to A Science Junkie’s Guide to Art

  1. Pingback: A Science Junkie’s Guide to Art – PLoS Blogs (blog) | aquatinted.com

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  3. Helen South says:

    Take a look at ‘Nervous System’ design studio for some amazing biology and engineering inspired design. Astronomy fans should check out artists Russell Crotty and Emma McNally.

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  4. Stuart Mayo says:

    “Those who practice science art bridge worlds that are cerebral and theoretical with those that are aesthetic and tactile.”

    It sounds like a description of pure synthesis, or pure creation. I love this way of expressing this idea. I am in full agreement. Arts and sciences usually tend to flourish best when combined in a carefully planned out, sensible way.

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  5. Pingback: A Science Junkie’s Guide to Art « Jahlela Rose

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