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Scientific accuracy in art

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When you type the word "trilobite" into Google’s Blog Search, my science-art blog The Flying Trilobite is currently the first to come up.

But I stick wings on them.

Trilobites are a huge group of extinct aquatic arthropods that died out about 250 million years ago. 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!

Salvador Dalí painted Crucifixion (corpus hypercubus) (1954, image ©1999 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid), featuring an image of Christ floating in front of an unfolded 4-dimensional tesseract (hypercube). In much the same way we could explain a cube to an entity living in 2-D by unfolding the box into a cross-like shape, an unfolded hypercube appears as a pillar of boxes with two cross-axis. The painting suggests the unfolded hypercube not as a torture device, but as a proxy for Christ (as crosses are often treated by the devout). As an otherworldly figure existing in our own 3-D, mortal space, the idea of Christ as a simplified human version of a higher-mathematical dimensional cube impinging on our space is a clear metaphor for both the physical manifestation of the math and the theology.

There’s nothing in the math to suggest a relationship with anything godlike. Certainly there’s nothing in the theology that pointed to unfolded hypercubes.

So what are winged trilobites and divine hypercubes for?

Should science-artists take more care, and somehow display the scientific concepts that inspire them with more adherence 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. For the scientific illustrator, teaching and clarity are goals. What are a science-artist’s goals?

It’s possible to just say, "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 reality really really is) as Dalí tossing cubes around. So there."

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.

A 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. The purpose, the path, the roadway of science-art is a Way of Exploring.

Consider science-artist Paul Walde’s series The Improbable Nature of the Properties That Lie Within.

By taking micrographs of hand painted slides, Walde is exploring the startling images that arise. What do you see? An image of a gas-giant and moons in space? Cellular matter? A familiar substance like paint is rendered exotic and otherworldly. This is not a way of knowing; it’s a way of bouncing on the trampoline of scientific processes to spring to new areas and ideas.

Science-art is 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 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; it’s a way of marrying the disparate to ponder how it would be possible.

We know nothing until we explore.

About The Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist and illustrator inspired by evolutionary biology and his oil and digital images have often been cited as examples of the intersection of art + science. Glendon’s artwork has ranged from fine art commissions to tattoo design to museum display, and has appeared in magazines including Earth and Secular Nation, and in books such as Geology in Art and The Open Laboratory. In addition, he has spoken at the Centre for Inquiry Ontario and led sessions at ScienceOnline in North Carolina. Glendon has received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours degree from York University in Toronto, Canada. Glendon shares his art process at his blog The Flying Trilobite, co-administrates at Art Evolved and SONSI, and tweets at @flyingtrilobite.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. anatotitan 10:14 am 12/21/2010

    "Way of exploring" is vastly superior to "way of knowing," which has always struck me as nonsense. "Way of Exploring" means exactly what "way of knowing" tries to mean.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 12:02 pm 12/21/2010

    Thanks anatotitan. I often wonder if "way of knowing" is used so heavily in non-scientific fields as a way of equivocating those fields of study with science. A type of insecurity.

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  3. 3. lowndesw 12:14 pm 12/21/2010

    just another way for Mr. Mellow to try to get some attention, and thereby sell some pictures, would be my guess!! And he has every right to do that, but for me it is just a waste of time.

    Merry Christmas!!

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  4. 4. Glendon Mellow 12:34 pm 12/21/2010

    I tried to treat this as an introductory post to the growing field of science-art, lowndesw. Was it not meaty enough? More analysis, more examples?

    Merry Christmas to you too!

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  5. 5. Elio Campitelli 2:10 pm 12/21/2010

    I didn’t know about Dali’s hypercube and I’ve never thought of an hypercube unfolded like that. It’s a really useful and nice way of imagining it.

    I love art that has some science behind. It gives it another layer of meaning. Just like watching a solar halo and understanding the optics that produces it. It speaks to me in two different ways; to my amigdala and my frontal cortex.

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  6. 6. silvrhairdevil 2:13 pm 12/21/2010

    Not too shabby for a first article, Glendon, but a little more meat would be good.

    I’ll have to explore your blog and links a bit.

    Link to this
  7. 7. seancraven 4:19 pm 12/21/2010

    We’ve hit a cultural impasse when a union between art and science is regarded as a curiosity. Currently, art is definitively open to influence from any sphere; that from time to time it should consort with its old lover science shouldn’t surprise anyone.

    Of course it is valid and appropriate to use the pursuits of science as a source of imagery, and a new box of toys. The appropriation of scientific imagery for use in one’s personal language is fascinating.

    Glendon, your stress on the importance of linking extrapolative and imaginary thought is one that hadn’t occurred to me. This makes me think of the pleasures of some forms of science fiction, the pleasures of the thought-experiment. This pleasure is one notoriously unappealing to the current world of the humanities.

    Honestly, given the number of great early scientists who were artists, and the number of working scientists with an interest in the arts, I wonder how the split happened. Was it the academic world, where the sciences and humanities have to compete for funds and prestige? One wonders.

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  8. 8. Glendon Mellow 6:38 pm 12/21/2010

    Elio – what an evocative comparison, that’s wonderful. It’s part of why I do what I do.

    Years ago, at an art show of mine I received some compliments and a lot of questions about the work. One colleague, studying zoology at the time, came over incredibly excited and asked if one of the paintings held a tardigrade – and if I didn’t know what she was talking about, "forget she said anything".

    It was a tardigrade, and she was really thrilled. It’s when I began thinking about the visual vocabulary based on religious sumbols prevalent since the gothic era in art history, and how with the right modern scientific symbols, a painting could open up the curiosity of scientifically-literate people in a whole new way.

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  9. 9. Glendon Mellow 6:56 pm 12/21/2010

    Thank you slivrhairdevil – gotcha, more meat the next time I do something introductory. Fair comment.

    There are some links right on my current post, and in addition to the links above, I might suggest exploring some of the artwork of:
    Felice Frankel
    Lynn Fellman
    James King
    Heather Thompkins
    Kaitlin Beckett
    and Hackteria, as well as the artists I have currently featured on the Science-Artists Feed.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Glendon Mellow 7:01 pm 12/21/2010

    "New box of toys" This! Exactly!

    Sean, that’s true, the split between the humanities and sciences is one for convenience, but it was never separate compartments. Or at least should not have been seen so.

    In Renaissance Italy, St Luke was sometimes seen as the patron saint of doctors and apothecaries – and painters belonged to this group. They purchased their pigments from apothecaries, and were considered to be a part of that portion of society.

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  11. 11. Glendon Mellow 7:02 pm 12/21/2010

    The link to these artists and the Science Artists Feed can be found here:

    Link to this
  12. 12. BrickEngraver 2:30 pm 12/22/2010

    One thing about the so called split between Science and Art is the fact that what most so called scientists do not understand is that the "scientific method" arose directly out of the artistic movement at the beginning of the Renaissance. Without the artist, there would have never been a Newton or any other scientist had it not been for the discovery (or invention) of single point perspective by an artist. I had a very learned professor that traced this and compared it to the Eastern multi-point perspective view.
    Before Filippo Brunelleschi the way of seeing the world was so radically different that science as we know it was not possible. In only a couple of hundred years for all of Western Civilization it became the defacto method of depicting and analyzing the world-not only in art but in literature and of course science also.

    For a few of my recent pictures of a completely natural process

    As perhaps the best writer on the intersection of science and art (and religion), Walker Percy, said

    With the method of science , one beholds what is generally true about individuals, but art beholds what is uniquely true.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Glendon Mellow 4:24 pm 12/22/2010

    Thanks for the links, BrickEngraver, that’s some fascinating work! Dried and drying paint? Clay? It’s so organic looking.

    You’re right of course, perspective was an invention that changed the course of the west in a huge way. The Gothic era, before Brunelleschi, was very similar in same ways to ancient Egyptian art: flat, symbolic and with size differentials between figures relating to their meaning and importance, not to where they stood in a 3-dimensional space.

    Nice Percy quote too! I’ll have to remember that one.

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  14. 14. BrickEngraver 10:34 am 12/23/2010

    The cracking should be "organic", lol, as they are pictures of the drying "endpoint" (a Cartesian term ) of all human consumption. For I work at a biological sewer plant (or the more PC correct term-"Waste Water Treatment Plant"). This is the sludge comprised of all the "bugs" we cultivate to clean the water. These microbes eat all the waste and once they have done their job, we let them settle and decant off the clean water and send it to the river. A portion of the settled bugs are then taken off the bottom of the settling tank and "wasted" onto drying beds. There the sun dries them and thus the cracking patterns. The good thing about "studying" this is that the sludge is of uniform concentration and color and applied at approximately the same depth-so although do not get reproducible results, get sort of consistent ones that can easily be "explored". Understand this is not drying shit, but drying bugs that have cleansed the shit of its environmental harmful constituents.

    I am glad that I have found someone who does understand the vital role that the artist made to science. Single point perspective not only allowed one to depict a scene in a different manner, it also allowed one to measure from a depicted scene giving rise of course to coordinate systems, etc. The picture is a snapshot of a scene at one time from one place. The rub is that this is not the natural way that human beings perceive the world. We constantly move our perspective and focus (the vanishing point) through the world and do not simply observe it from one point. We do not take thousands of mini-snapshots of the world and compile them.

    Contrast that to a Chinese scroll painting, where by as one unrolls the scene, one is constantly moving his point of view and is directed by the artist through means other than perspective to the subject and to the depth and relationships of the the elements of the painting through time. In many ways a more human depiction than now traditional Western art. One could make the argument that with the advent of motion pictures, we essentially have created a scroll painting. And perhaps the popularity of movies is the fact that they are more in sync with the way a human perceives the world.

    Guess I had quit rambling and get back to work.

    Somewhere in the deep recesses of my storeage room, I have the very good syllabus of Dr.Green, professor emeritus at NCSU who very well might be the great expert on much of this stuff. I go back every now and again and see if he is still correct, and IMHO, he still is.

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  15. 15. Glendon Mellow 10:43 am 12/24/2010

    BrickEngraver, what an unusual process! Very cool. The images are really evocative, you could see so much in them" desert; brick, scraped paint.

    Regarding the scroll vs portrait painting, I recall the writer John Barrow once wondering if Christ has been stoned to death instead of hung on a cross, what would have happened to European imagery? Would we have focused on painting blurry, active motion? Developed movies sooner? Christ’s particular form of punishment has fed directly into the tradition of greco-roman still-life’s of mainly nude human forms.

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  16. 16. bucketofsquid 5:08 pm 12/27/2010

    I’ve never seen a legitimate separation between art and science. I’ve never seen much separation between science and religion either. They are all facets of seeking the fundamental truth of existence. When adherents of any of the three try to claim superiority I always get the image in my mind of a set of triplets each claiming that mommy loves them best.

    I agree that you need to include a bit more in your future articles. In an article about art I would like to see more illustration. I would also like to hear some science music. I’m not talking about Daft Punk or something techno or electronica. I’m talking about musical representation of data and algorithms much the way we make charts and graphs to represent data. That probably isn’t your area though is it?

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  17. 17. Glendon Mellow 2:45 pm 12/31/2010

    (Pardon my late reply)

    Science-inspired or -based music is indeed a topic worth exploring and it is also quite vast. Not my area of expertise, so I didn’t touch on it because I didn’t feel it fit with the visual art I was focused on.

    You’ve never seen a legitimate separation between art and science? Really? I agree they could be termed "facets of seeking the fundamental truth of existence," but under that large umbrella of truth-seeking, surely there can be distinguishable subsets. Seeing the trees for the forest, as it were.

    Link to this

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