In principle, the worlds of science and art could not be more different. Art is creative and diverse in nature while science relies on accuracy and precision of method. You could say the two are juxtaposed. However, an exhibition featured recently at the Brick Lane Gallery in London, showed that science and art can in fact be beautifully combined.
‘Beautiful Science’ is the result of a voluntary collaboration between a group of independent artists and a circle of postdoctoral researchers from Imperial College London. The key purpose of the project was to find out whether scientific images have the potential to be aesthetically, as well as, intellectually, pleasing. In the process they were also able to demonstrate that art, perhaps surprisingly, can form the perfect medium for communicating science.
‘Beautiful Science’ was labelled, by its organisers, as an experiment – it was up to those who saw it to decide whether the images could stand alone as works of art. Ten scientific images were displayed alongside their artistic interpretations, each using a variety of mediums and techniques. From stunning copper plate etchings constructed from a microscopic image of pulmonary neurones to beautifully fragile jewellery combining the delicate structure of bone and that of lace.
Despite only being displayed at the gallery for a week, it was one of Brick Lane’s most visited for a number of months. Among those visitors were a class of 30 school children for whom the organisers put on a special workshop to explore the key themes of the exhibition. During their visit, each of the scientific images accompanying the artwork was removed and the students were asked to match them up again while also trying to understand what science is really about – who are scientists and who are artists and are they really all that different?
Following this, the students were split into smaller groups and given a short talk on complex scientific topics – from HIV transmission to genetic modification. They were then given an hour to create an artistic piece to demonstrate the concepts they had learnt. When I went along on the last day of the exhibition, these pieces were still on show and while looking at them I felt that they, in some ways, revealed more to me about science, than reading through a textbook ever did whilst I was at school. It struck me that science and science communication is as much about creativity of thought as it is about method.
Before the exhibition was opened, a discussion was held at Imperial College, and one of the questions raised was how science and art can benefit from each other. After seeing this work, I can see that science, and science communication in particular, has much to benefit from the versatile presentations of art. Now, when overall interest in STEM subjects, in schools, is relatively low and fewer are choosing scientific subjects for their A-Levels each year, it seems even more important for teachers to find new ways to present science.
One of the pieces in the exhibition that demonstrated a simple yet effective way of communicating a difficult concept was a book of photographs featuring small coloured balls and the spice, star anise. Its purpose was to illustrate the different outcomes of hepatitis C viral infection. The coloured balls, in four different colours, represented the four chemical bases that make up our DNA – adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine – and the star anise played the role of hepatitis C. By changing the composition of the amino acids (or coloured balls in this case) and the number of star anise the artist was able to show how a virus can invade and begin to multiply and also how a single mutation can affect the entire outcome of how a virus affects the human body.
For me one of the most intriguing pieces in the exhibition was a piece of evolving art made up of twenty-two sedimentary layers symbolising the twenty-two elements of the human DNA. ‘The Chemical Soup’ is a true composition of science and art, changing over time as the rust on the piece reacts with the salt solution that is applied each day. You can take a look at how it was made here.
During my visit I was lucky enough to have a detailed tour by one of the organisers and a postdoctoral researcher in Physics at Imperial College London, Martin Lenz. I asked him why he thought it was so important to demonstrate that science can be communicated in this way. He told me that he believed it was imperative that science tries to reach out and stimulate discussions beyond the scientific community. In fact one of the reasons that the exhibition was held at the Brick Lane Gallery rather than in one of the project’s associated institutions, The Wellcome Trust or Imperial College, was so that people not normally interested or knowledgeable in science would be drawn in.
This, to me, encompasses exactly what science communication should be about: communicating science in a more universally understandable way, and in this case, art was the perfect medium by which to do it.
Julia Robinson is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index. To find out more about the exhibit and individual pieces visit http://www.beautifulscience.info.