Blog post #3
Science and Art: A Natural Connection
In lieu of a strictly science post, I wanted to talk about a passion of mine that is as important to science as it is to my person. It is something I fall back on during challenging moments in grad school. It is something I utilize when I am at my most confused, most stressed, and most happy. It is something I use to help myself, as well as other scientists and my fellow person. It is a critical facet to every field of science that is often overlooked in books, museums, posters, and classrooms. I am talking about my favorite scientific tool: visual ART.
When I define art as a “scientific tool”, I am not referring to a lab instrument like a scale or pipette. Nor am I referring to visual imagery for data analysis, such as graphs (although these do indeed communicate science to an audience!). Rather, I am referring to the role of visual art as a universal translator for the often complex nature of science.
The old adage “one picture is worth a thousand words” is extremely apt in this case. The ultimate goal of science is to better understand the world around us and communicate this understanding, but science is often perceived as “difficult” due to its multifaceted nature. Science can break down the simplest parts of life into insanely complicated individual components and overwhelm the reader with numbers and information. This complexity has built a stigma around the sciences that the public often references (we are all guilty of assuming the “scientist = smart” stereotype). The “other worldy” aura surrounding science, and often actively perpetuated by unaware or high-flown scientists, has prevented many capable individuals from learning science for themselves. This can ultimately lead to abuse of knowledge or misinformation. Only by dispelling the stigma we have built around the sciences can we unite humans under a common objective knowledge that will improve the state of our lives and our planet.
Politics and personal opinion are the usual suspects to blame for scientific communication breakdown, but I argue that over-complexity is just as problematic. Think about it: how can you learn and apply new knowledge in, for instance, fisheries stock assessment if you don’t know anything about basic statistics or basic fishery principles? The experienced statistician may fully understand the definition of a regression, but he may not know anything about fish ecology. Likewise, the experienced fisherman with extensive fish knowledge may not know anything about the statistics underlying the fish population. What’s more, a person who is neither a statistician nor a fisherman may not trust, learn, or even care about new knowledge in such a field (and rightfully so, if they are not properly informed).The problem boils down to one question: How can you communicate a complicated topic to a wide audience?
Herein lies the rub. If I want to apply this conundrum to my current research, I face the challenge of communicating chemical concepts that may be very familiar to chemists, such as microscopic compounds in the environment and mass spectrometry techniques, but wildly foreign to everyone else. Posing the above question to myself: how can I communicate the complicated topic of chemical environmental contaminants to a wide audience?
Now, I am speaking from experience here. When I started this chemistry-based project, I was a marine biologist, pure and simple. My background was the macroscopic – small invertebrates, large fish, and the ecology oflake and ocean systems that supported these organisms. When I embarked on a project that characterized a chemical compound at least 5000x as small as the smallest creature I had studied, I found myself faced with a wall of seemingly insurmountable chemical knowledge. I had to spend months just reading about chromatography and mass spectrometry to scratch the surface of a topic that I could have learned much faster if given a straightforward learning aid.
This is where visual art fits into science. Visual art is a wonderful way of bringing science to a large audience since it presents intimidating information in a comfortable, simplified, and easy-to-digest format. Pictures have a way of simplifying complex topics into a cohesive image that our brains can assimilate. Of course, the image cannot convey all the details, but it provides a comfortable foundation for learning and a fantastic way of getting the “take home” message of convoluted data. Anyone can become intrigued by an interesting image since it captures the eye and engages the brain. In my experience, children are also much more likely to pay attention if given an exciting visual aid.
The principle of learning science through visual stimulation goes both ways for the artist and the viewer. Along with many students, I learn better if I draw an image of something I am learning. I have drawn illustrations for other scientists’ research projects that I know very little about, and ended up consuming a plethora of information about a niche field that I would not have learned otherwise. The act of moving my hands and engaging my brain to make a visual representation of the topic I am learning reaffirms what I know and enlightens me on what I do not know.
Personally, graphite and ink drawings are my medium of choice for learning and communicating complicated scientific topics. I have used my art to show specific biological structure, biochemical pathways, or biomechanical dimensions, and to convey general concepts in single images (e.g. neuroscience engineering, chemicals in the environment, etc.). I have even used art as a social tool in the lab to generate a sense of community between individuals (what can I say? People love to talk about new picture!). Art is my go-to tool for working and learning effectively. Think of the potential for art to bring awareness to important complicated topics that would otherwise be misunderstood or brushed aside in the wake of confusion! Art has the ability to connect all of us as humans under a common framework of understanding.
So, next time you are at an art museum, or even just staring at the pictures on the walls of your favorite coffeeshop, keep in mind that the same underlying skill that was used to paint, draw, sculpt, or craft aesthetic works is also the key to understanding art’s seemingly antithetic friend, science.