At first, it looks like a painting from the school of abstract expressionism. A red, central column spiked with narrow yellow bands stands brilliantly against a black field. But actually this is a photograph capturing bacteria in communication with one another, releasing signal molecules in a process known as quorum sensing. These bacteria have colonized the inside of a flow cell, a chamber that liquid courses through to simulate environments where bacteria live, such as water pipes or your intestines. Minyoung Kevin Kim, a graduate student, photographed this behavior during his research in the Bassler and Stone labs.
His photo, Bacterial Communication in Complex Geometry and Flow, is just one of sixty new works lining the light-filled hallway of Princeton University’s Friend Center, an engineering library, as part of the eighth “Art of Science” exhibition. The exhibition showcases images scientists generate during their usual course of research in fields from embryology to plasma physics. These curated images are not merely scientifically relevant; they were chosen for the aesthetic qualities they also possess.
It is scientific data, but it is also art. The exhibition’s strength lies in challenging us to hold in our minds these two—seemingly dissonant — ideas simultaneously. As an artist and a fourth year doctoral student in chemistry, I love going to the “Art of Science.” The exhibition subverts the practice of segregating my two passions into mutually exclusive realms, an all too common division I find limiting.
This year’s exhibition complicates the usual program. I was excited to find, alongside aesthetically pleasing data, artistic works made in the “spirit of scientific inquiry, liberally defined.” This includes works of art created using scientific materials or pieces exploring scientific concepts in artistic genres, such as dance.
In one such scientifically-infused creative process, a visual arts major, Louisa Willis, experimented with an overhead projector, growing agar plates of bacteria with the projector’s heat and imaging the plates with the projector’s light. Willis then digitally colored and layered the resulting photographs. Her final product, Bumper Moons (Experiment 8), is eerily beautiful. Colonized dishes now overlap as transparent circles of aqua and ruby. In my own research, I am a frequent streaker of antibiotic selection plates. But Willis, rather than growing bacteria in the conventional way I do, playfully upended this process. By repurposing her projector as incubator and light box both, she created an elegant piece of art/lab equipment.
By including works inspired by science, not strictly products of formal research, the latest exhibition further blurs the traditional boundaries between science and art. Presented as equals, striking juxtapositions emerge. In one video, a ballerina mimics neurotransmission events in the brain, her sharp gestures recalling the opening and closing of gap junctions linking neurons. Looping on another flatscreen is an animation of a subject’s fMRI-measured brain activity as they watched the first episode of BBC’s Sherlock. I laughed at the absurdity of watching one of my favorite shows in frantic fast forward, perched in the corner of the screen. Looking just below, tiny dots raced around a slowly revolving brain, marking colorful pathways, thought patterns that could have been mine.
Though the images consistently entice, rather than intimidate, the accompanying captions are more inconsistent. Some captions read like obscure scientific abstracts describing a material or technology generally, rather than focusing on the particular image. The best captions explain the content of the image itself and how the image was created.
For example, in Crystalline Mondrian, triangles in shades of blue-gray fracture the frame, creating intriguing alternations of light and dark. Turning to the caption, I discovered that the triangles compose a thin crystal film of rubrene, an organic semiconductor, where each blue is a distinct crystalline domain. Within each domain, rubrene molecules align with each other, but deviate from the alignment of rubrenes gathered in surrounding domains. I was charmed to behold a concrete manifestation of an invisible phenomena: polarized light interacting constructively or destructively with crystalline domains. As the polarized light aligns with or deviates from the angle of each domain, the light reflected is either brighter or dimmer. A fundamental physics principle comes to life in this photograph.
In each piece, viewers glimpse an expert’s world. An entire field of research hides in a single image or 30 seconds of video. The limited space of each piece heightened my curiosity about the broad, underlying research more effectively than a longwinded lecture or a laboratory visit ever could. The limitations created a pointed strangeness that made me crave a deeper grasp of each subject.
The “Art of Science” celebrates the visual outputs common to both disciplines. Art and science share a visual language and rely on creative processes. This can be challenging to recognize. Skeptical viewers might dismiss the beauty on display as unintentional, since it is not the primary objective of research. But to dismiss this beauty as “accidental” is too easy. Here, beauty is not an artifact, but a feature of compelling data.
The exhibition merges art and science at Princeton University’s Friend Center until January 2018.