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Scientific accuracy in art

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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.

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

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