thomas kuhn

Shadow sculpture

The second in our series on this year’s group projects by Science Communication students is a shadow sculpture, an artwork by Alice Hazelton, Natascha Mehrabi and Andy Roast.

The shadow sculpture draws on ideas about the nature of science and its place within society. The sculpture is made of an assemblage of materials that highlight everything that is involved in the scientific process, both technical and social aspects. Originally appearing as a clutter of objects, the shadow is not immediately apparent until a light is shone through the sculpture at the correct angle. This is analagous to Kuhn’s paradigm shifts that occur within science – science progresses when theories are viewed from a different perspective. The media often portrays science as clearly defined facts that are derived from a rigid scientific process; this is illustrated by the clear shadow outline of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. In reality, science is filled with a mixture of theories and ideas, including many uncertainties; the jumble of objects in the sculpture represents this.

On an arctic morning, in the tundra just south of Wembley, we managed to get ourselves some off cuts of wood for about a fiver! We lugged these for half a mile along the A40 towards Park Royal tube station. This was a low point… We were cold, we were lost underneath the weighty building materials and we were almost late for afternoon lectures. This was how our group project began.

As you’ve probably seen, the brief for the Group Project was, well, pretty brief! Video and audio products were not banned, but we were encouraged to think of projects which did not require the use of cameras or sound recording equipment.

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As such, many of this year’s groups produced art works, which I think made a refreshing change from the animations and videos from last year. My group, composed of Alice Hazelton, Natascha Mehrabi and myself, decided to build a shadow sculpture, based on the work of artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. We wanted this to connote ideas about ‘viewing science’.

The argument of whether science advances through discovery or invention has been fought between philosophers and scientists for centuries. Scientists often like to think that they act as mere lenses upon nature, focussing its laws objectively, but in the last 50 years, many philosophers of science, including N Russell Hanson, Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper have argued that in order to make sense of observations of reality, scientists must first have an understanding of what it is they wish to observe. This seems to undermine the objectivity of science, however, it is not quite as simple as scientists ‘seeing what they want to see’. Instead this idea implies that scientists must hold a theoretical perspective in mind when they make observations on nature.

In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that for scientific knowledge to progress there must be dramatic reorientations in the way scientists view nature. These so-called ‘paradigm shifts’ dramatically modify our understanding of the universe and we wanted to produce an art work which allowed the viewer to undergo their own paradigm shift. Initially, our visitors would notice a seemingly random collection of objects. Only after a light is shone on this jumble, could the visitors spot the coherent, shadow image.

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But what should we use to build the sculpture? To create a confusing mess of objects, the sculpture had to look ‘thrown together’. We therefore settled on building the sculpture out of different objects that influence science and its goings on – the classic set of test tubes, conical flasks, microscopes and text books were all used as these pieces of equipment clearly play an important role in the construction of scientific ideas. We also threw in a few wine bottles, pint glasses and bits of cash, things we might associate with the social aspects of science. After all, scientific ideas don’t just arise from lab work; they can pop up anywhere and be influenced by many things. Coming up with a new idea over a drink with friends in the pub or doing science a certain way because of financial circumstances are just some of the examples that we chose to represent the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Our shadow image had to be clear and easily recognisable as a scientific myth. For this, we chose a popular myth of science: Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. In this myth, Isaac Newton is sitting underneath an apple tree, contemplating complicated stuff like calculus, when an apple falls and lands on his head. As he ponders the reason why this happened, he realises that there must be a force drawing the apple towards the ground. He called this force gravity and mathematically explained how it works. We settled on this myth for its popularity and because it connotes the idea of ‘the light bulb moment’ when a scientific discovery is made, which most of us know doesn’t happen that often!

After dragging the building materials from Park Royal to South Kensington via the Piccadilly Line we arrived back at college. Once there we drew an outline of the shadow we wanted to create. We then projected this outline onto a wall to create an even larger outline! In a long process of trial and error, we positioned the various scientific apparatus in front of a lamp, making sure that the shadow fitted within the outline. We thought that the very process of building the sculpture, laying large foundations upon which smaller structures add detail, connoted Thomas Kuhn’s ‘problem solving’ which occurs when a science happily works within an existing paradigm. To capture this, we filmed a time-lapse video of the construction. It also demonstrates science as a craft.

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At last! We proudly finished our sculpture, but what would other people make of it? We organised an open-viewing to exhibit the work and I think this went pretty well. Our lecturers and course mates engaged with the sculpture, sharing their ideas about its meaning and asking questions about the construction and what we wanted to achieve. There was even a spontaneous round of applause. I admit, the video quality leaves a lot to be desired, but I recorded a short video of the event.  I really like watching everyone making sense of the structure.

This reaction on a warm, March afternoon was only 8 weeks and 6 miles away from that cold morning we spent collecting building equipment in Park Royal. And the positive comments we received from our course mates made the work put into the project all the more worthwhile.

Alice Hazelton, Natascha Mehrabi and Andy Roast are all currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College. Alice is also one of the editors for Refractive Index.

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