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Is there beauty in raw scientific data?


Beautiful Science imagesWhat do artists and scientists think of as ‘beautiful’ and do their outlooks differ? Dr Marjet Elemans and colleagues find out.

Although discoveries shape the way we live, the creative process and cutting edge scientific data underlying this progress are rarely presented to the public. Of course, one could argue, it is the end-result that counts so why share the raw scientific data?

At Imperial College London, three postdoctoral researchers have a short and simple answer: beauty. With the increased use of high-resolution microscopy scientists have started producing stunning images of cells, bones or even whole organisms. Impressed by the aesthetics of their microscopic images, these researchers began to wonder if their scientific images could actually be considered art.

To try to answer this question a project emerged in which artists were invited to produce artistic representations of postdoctoral research performed at Imperial College. The project, called Beautiful Science, began with a dialogue between artists and scientists, not only to explain the scientific work we wanted translated into art, but also to understand the similarities and differences in creative thought in the arts and the sciences. Are we really that different? Do we live up to the stereotypes of emotion driven creators versus rational fact-finders? What can we learn from each other?

Not surprisingly, the project quickly taught that there are many similarities; in approach, creativity and even techniques. Jo Bradford and Alice Brown concluded that, even though Alice uses cutting-edge microscopes and cameras while Jo creates her art with antiquated camera-less photographic techniques, they found some remarkable similarities between processes they both used and the hours of experimentation they both put in to produce a single coloured picture.

But, equally unsurprising, there’s a lot we can learn from each other. As Martin Spitaler, who runs the film and light microscopy facility within Imperial College, found:

“Artists often try to understand what makes us feel happy, what makes us feel “this is beautiful”. That’s something very helpful for scientists too – just step back… and enjoy the beauty of it”.

A scientific pitfall is to get more and more specialised and gradually get lost in details. Artists can catch the essence of faces or objects with just a few simple lines.

As one of the organisers of Beautiful Science I am impressed by the dedication of the participants of the project. I’ve never worked with a group that is so enthusiastic and inquisitive. The artists spend a lot of time and energy to understand the work carried out by their scientific counterparts and the scientists in turn got involved in the artistic process and made a huge effort to explain and simplify their often specialised research. If this group of young artists and scientists is representative for the current and coming generation of professionals, science communication is heading for a great future.

The Beautiful Science project has resulted in an exhibition where pure scientific images are juxtaposed with the artworks they inspired. Do the scientific images stand as works of art when presented in the same context as their purely artistic counterparts? Come and judge for yourself at the Brick Lane Gallery ANNEXE (26 June – 2 July 2012).

Marjet Elemans

Dr Marjet Elemans is an immunologist at Imperial College London and one of the organisers of Beautiful Science.

Beautiful Science is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award and runs at the Brick Lane Gallery ANNEXE until 2 July 2012.

A related discussion event takes place at Imperial College London tonight (18 June 2012). See beautifulscience.info for more details.

Image credit: Beautiful Science

Filed under: Event, Guest posts, Public Engagement, Science Art, Science Communication Tagged: Art, Imperial College London, Sciart, Science, Wellcome Trust People Award

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