Julie Gould: 00:09
Hello and welcome to Working scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould.
In this episode we’re going to hear about why accuracy in art is important when it comes to it being used to communicate science, but that sometimes it’s okay to be playful too, as long as you make your intentions about the art clear.
In keeping with our art and science theme, each episode in this podcast series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council.
The ISC’s Centre for Science Futures is exploring the creative process and societal impact of science fiction by talking to some of the genre’s leading authors.
There are many different types of art that come under the art and science umbrella. And each one has a very different perspective on the importance of accuracy.
Glendon Mellow is the senior marketing manager for digital at Red Nucleus, a life sciences learning and development company based in the USA and Canada.
But he’s also an artist, Illustrator and community advocate. He has been heavily involved in the sci-art community for several years, and has spent a lot of time thinking about both art and science. And in this podcast, he’s speaking to us in his illustrator capacity,
Glendon Mellow 01:35
If I think about that giant umbrella of sci-art and, you know, and comics and medical illustration and fine art and all these different types of artwork that can go into it, a fine artist playing with concepts surrounding, say, genetics or evolution is one thing.
But that’s a very different thing if it’s a scientific illustrator who’s doing this for educational purposes. A medical illustrator, if they get something wrong, that could affect someone’s real life.
Julie Gould: 02:03
Glendon’s fine art combines myth and metaphor with science. And so this concept of scientific accuracy isn’t high on his priority list.
Glendon Mellow: 02:12
When I put wings on trilobites, I’m not too concerned.
We know they were aquatic. There’s, you know, 10s of 1000s of species. They’re pretty established. It’
s not likely that anything I do is going to suddenly nudge opinions into into someplace they shouldn’t go on these fossils.
Julie Gould: 02:30
But as Glendon mentioned, for technical drawings, this should be high on the list as they will impact scientific knowledge. This is often associated with medical textbooks where an artist might be required to create illustrations that show the form of a human body.
A photograph in this case wouldn’t be very helpful. Too many fluids and viscera in the way. But a pen and ink drawing can capture the shapes and forms more directly. And this is also true for botanical art, says Lucy Smith, who is a botanical artist based in Kew Gardens in London.
Lucy Smith: 03:03
Well, the kinds of drawings that I do, it’s almost like technical drawing. So I’m measuring everything, I’m keeping track of how I’m drawing it in terms of whether I’ve enlarged the scale, or whether I’ve had to reduce something down to fit on the piece of paper.
So measurement is really important. Scale is really important. And so is things like dissecting flowers. So I’ll pull flowers apart in a very special way, which allows you to show the difference between the flowers, how the parts are arranged,
I have to be very accurate. So accuracy really is key. But on top of all these very technical things, you’ve also got to try and capture the life and the spirit of the plant so that the character of the plant as well. So you’ve got to be an artist and a scientist at the same time.
Julie Gould: 03:49
Other artists aim to create something that is accurate, but they come up against barriers.
Luke Jerram: 03:54
This idea of scientific accuracy, it does change over time.
Julie Gould: 03:58
This is British artist Luke Jerram, Luke has spent a lot of time reworking some of his art pieces as the scientific knowledge has changed and developed.
For example, in 2004 Luke started making and designing glass models of viruses, using grainy electron microscope images and chemical models as his inspiration.
One of the models Luke was asked to build was a hepatitis C model. And he was presented with some very detailed diagrams of the external protein structure that he was to create.
Luke Jerram: 04:27
The diagrams look absolutely accurate. They say that, you know, this is how it is. And then you then you ask the scientists, “Does it actually look like that?” And they say, “Well, we don’t really know. It’s a kind of wiggle with a curve and a loop, you know.” But the diagram they’ve presented, you know, with a graph and and is three dimensional, it looks so, there’s so much evidence in that photograph, that chemical diagram, that suggests that they’ve they’ve nailed it. But actually, when you actually ask them about it, it’s not really the case.
But it’s really interesting. So you end up with a roomful of scientists, and then you have to sort of agree on something that everyone’s happy with, according to contemporary science.
But if I were to go back and speak to another room of scientists, from a different university talking about the surface protein shape of hepatitis C, whatever. Then they might come up with a different solution at that particular point. It’s really interesting.
So what we’re presented with often looks like hard evidence from a scientific, you know. But actually, when you when you dig down into it, that there’s holes all the way through it a lot of the time.
And I think you need 10 to 20 years to be able to look back on data to see whether something’s accurate or not.
Julie Gould; 05:54
Another barrier for Luke that determines whether his model is accurate or not, is the limitations of the materials that he’s working with. Is his design actually physically possible?
Luke Jerram: 06:05
Sometimes I come up with a sculpture that’s so delicate, that actually the forces of gravity would cause it to collapse in the first place. So you wouldn’t actually, it’s not very buildable.
Julie Gould: 06:19
Kelly Krause is the creative director at Springer Nature and she oversees the cover artwork created for Nature and other Nature Portfolio magazines.
Kelly says that their work falls into the visual communication space. So her work also covers videos and artwork for editorial articles, as well as research papers.
But the role of the front cover in particular is to draw in an audience. And the type of visual communication that is used to do this depends on the research being represented.
Photography, for example, is great for representing something specific like a particular type of tree from the Amazon.
Kelly Krause: 06:55
….whereas illustration tends to be effective for representing concepts and metaphors and illustrations themselves can be very different. They can also be sort of specific within the field of illustration. It can be sort of 3d modeling, or it can be something very, you know, it could be a painting.
We do as a science journal obviously have imaging and all kinds of imaging on the covers. So you know, from microscopy to astrophotography, depending on the topic.
And artists’ conceptions are always fun, usually for things that you know, we cannot see. Or things from the past. Let’s say a paleo artist will recreate what we think a dinosaur may have looked like from a fossil
Julie Gould: 07:32
As Glendon Mellow mentioned earlier, artists need to be careful how they represent the science that they’re making art about, particularly when the science is about something you cannot see.
And Kelly Krause and her creative team at Nature put a lot of thought into representing certain topics of research to make sure that the cover art used isn’t misleading.
An example she gave was a cover that was published on 9 March 2017.
Kelly Krause: 07:58
We ran a paper about time crystals on the cover. And time crystals is not something that can be seen with the naked eye.
And we commissioned an illustrator, a 3d Illustrator, to create something that actually looked quite real and looks like a real object.
And it kind of looked like a crystal with a bit of smoke, and it had sort of a timestamp on it.
And when it came time to thinking about “Do we want to animate this?” We decided not to because someone might have thought that it was real.
So we think carefully about you know, “Would someone misconstrue this for being real?” Or is there something within this representation that, you know, we try to keep it if it’s something that’s not known, we try to keep it sort of visually vague enough, I suppose, that it’s not misrepresented.
Julie Gould: 08:51
But ultimately, in visual communications, particularly for publishing, there is a need to make sure that the visuals aren’t too complicated or busy. There needs to be a balance between accuracy and simplicity.
Kelly Krause: 09:03
The challenge there is to communicate simply without oversimplifying, I think visual communication in many ways is driven by you know, sort of principles around visual hierarchy, making sure the main sort of main messages come across particularly in things like information design.
You know, how can we communicate and design for delivery of information that’
s very clear, immediately, not overcomplicated. And I think science is by nature, sometimes a bit complicated.
So it’s sort of finding that balance between simplifying too much and being as accurate as the content demands.
Julie Gould: 09:40
However, science isn’t always accurate as Luke Jerram mentioned earlier in the episode. Science changes all the time. Theories are shown to be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be represented in art.
Nadav Drukker is a professor of theoretical physics at King’s College London, and he’s also a sculptor. He uses his art to represent his scientific thinking and process, as well as the results.
Nadav Drukker: 10:05
As an artist you’re supposed to represent something in yourself, something dear to you, close to your heart.
And the topics that I research are very dear to me and I cannot communicate them to people who are not experts like me.
And instead, I find a way to realize them n clay, as art or sculpture .The shape is somehow inspired by the research.
Julie Gould: 10:37
His research is also based on topics that are difficult to represent in an accurate visual and realistic way.
Nadav Drukker 10:44
String theory lives in 10 dimensions. Sometimes these mathematical objects are 10 dimensional. It’s, it’s very hard to realize them in clay.
But sometimes a part of this 10-dimensional space is two dimensional, it can be a Taurus and I do have pieces that look like Tauri.
And sometimes it can be a sphere. And these two shapes are particularly easy because they have rotational symmetry, so I can make them on the wheel.
If they are more complicated shapes, I can try to make them in a different ceramic process.
But not all my research is geometrical. And if I researched another topic, I’d find a way to realize it in clay.
There could be an idea in my research that has some meaning that can be translated to a sculpture. There can be a graph in my paper that would represent a shape. In one case even there were particular figures in my calculation that looked like, very similar to traditional forms of decorations, of traditional Native American pottery.
And then I decided to follow this by taking a shape that is a traditional Native American in the pot and use that as the shape. So it’s a bit more remote. That shape was not in my research, but this is how I got to it. So I somehow find a shape that to me, would represent my research, and then go on and decorate it.
Julie Gould: 12:28
These decorations can sometimes be graphs, formulas, writings, but also equations that Nadav is working on.
Nadav Drukker: 12:35
They can be explicit calculations that I’m doing as part of my research, they can be draft calculations, or can even be mistakes in them if they are not the final form of the calculation.
So if I make a piece while doing research, we’ll just transcribe what I’m thinking of now, which may end up correct or may end up having to be revised.
But then I finished the piece and I fire it . And this is left as a testament of my thinking during this scientific process. Now burned and frozen, this clay piece.
Julie Gould: 13:22
In the fourth episode of this series, we’re going to look closely into an art-science collaboration, where the science was inspired by art, and the art is inspired by the science.
But before that, we have our sponsored slots from the International Science Council about the creative process and societal impact of science fiction.
Thanks to Nigel Meredith, Diana Scarborough and Kim Kunio for letting us use their music from the Sounds of Space project.
In this episode you’ve heard And the Heavens Sing as the afternoon still 3:10pm from their Aurora Musicalis album.
Paul Shrivastava 14:03:
Welcome to this podcast on science fiction and the future of science. I’m Paul Shrivastava from the Pennsylvania State University. In this series, I’m speaking to award-winning science fiction authors from around the world. I want to harness the power of their imagination to discuss how science can help us deal with the biggest challenges of this century.
Vandana Singh 14:25:
You can see the climate as a problem of changing and broken relationships.
Paul Shrivastava 14:31:
Today, I’m talking to Vandana Singh who teaches physics full-time at Framingham State University, but also has produced many science fiction stories, including The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Delhi. Their themes span from Earth renewal to time travel. We discussed the limits of data, the power of narrative, and whether our conceptions of time could help us think about responsibility in science. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome Vandana, and thank you for joining this podcast. Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship with science?
Vandana Singh 15:13:
I’m very glad to be here. Thank you for the warm welcome. One of the things I realized when I was quite young is that I couldn’t do without science, but I also couldn’t do without literature and the arts. I realized that I think about science kind of similar to the way I think about stories, because science to me is one way of eavesdropping on the conversations that nature is having. That matter has with matter, for example. And so the storyteller part of me is a way of conversing with Mother Nature, too, because in the imaginative realm of speculative fiction, you can push back a little bit and say, well, Mother Nature, what if it wasn’t this way?
Paul Shrivastava 16:00:
So tell us a little bit more about how in your own work you depict scientific endeavours or science systems broadly.
Vandana Singh 16:09:
In many stories, I write about scientists who are working on their own because they are in some sense renegades. They have perhaps a more holistic view of what science is or what science should be. And it’s kind of ironic because you know, of course, science is a collective enterprise. In many of my stories, I am thinking about what the process of discovery is like, and I’m also trying to push against this notion that there is a subject–object separation, with the excuse of objectivity we have in science that you’re separate from what you observe. And to me, isn’t it more honest to simply, you know, say who we are before we start looking at something and trying to understand it because we are part of what we are studying.
Paul Shrivastava 17:03:
I have railed against this separation of subjectivity and objectivity in a lot of my own writings. And I want to push this a little bit further because I want to explore with you some of the tropes in science that are problematic that you have used in your work. And how does one attempt to overcome them and get what you refer to as a more holistic view of what is happening in the world?
Vandana Singh 17:28:
Well, I think it begins with the history of my own field of physics. If you look at Newtonian physics, it’s based on this shattered mirror view of nature, that you can understand the world if you understand its parts. And that has taken us really far, and it is a powerful way of thinking. But unfortunately for us, the world is not actually like that. But if you look at this Newtonian vision, everything is machine-like whether you’re talking about physics or whether you’re talking about the human body or even social organization. And the thing about machines is that machines are controllable, right?
So it gives you a delusion of control, and it’s not a coincidence that this view arises at the time at the height of colonialism. And colonialism has two aspects. Of course, one aspect is the mastery of one group of people over another, and that exploitation of that second group, but it’s also the mastery of humans over nature. If, like indigenous peoples around the world, if we recognize that the world is a priori complex, that the world is a priori relational, then it’s the simple Newtonian systems that become the small subsystem of the whole. And instead, we have it the other way around and that’s a problem.
Paul Shrivastava 18:57:
So going into the future, is there an alternative way of viewing knowledge and doing knowledge acquisition, of knowledge creation, that would be superior to science? Is narrative a more holistic approach?
Vandana Singh 19:14:
Wow, that’s a big question, and I wish I was wise enough to have a good answer to it. I really think that the power of narrative is crucial. Now, I know that some fellow scientists will push back and assume that I’m saying that, you know, data doesn’t matter. That’s not what I’m saying, actually. Data also tells stories. But sometimes the stories that data tells us are insufficient because that doesn’t open our minds to the questions we haven’t asked yet. Part of the problem is we are getting seduced by data, data, data. Let’s recognize, let’s contextualize, the role of data and numbers within a larger, more generous and more holistic framework. That does put narrative in front as a starting point. The thing about stories is, and especially carefully curated good stories, is that they’re rich and they transcend disciplines because that’s, that’s what the world is. Nature doesn’t make distinctions between physics, chemistry, biology and art. You can’t just teach the science. You have to teach how science relates to the world. You have to teach what’s happening in the world as well.
Paul Shrivastava 20:33:
Amazing. This is such a rich answer here. I want to move on to talking about something that I know you’re very interested in and you have explored in your works — the concept of time. Do you think alternative perceptions of time can help us think about our responsibilities in science?
Vandana Singh 20:55:
Well, you know, the linear notion of time is the one that dominates in science. So we think about the time axis that is stretching from the past, through the present into the future, into infinity, and that’s of course a useful thing. But we know from physics that time is not that simple. That, for instance, time depends on speed, and time also depends on gravity. So time is a very slippery concept, and yet we seem to have embraced this one very oversimplified view of time. When I try to expand my temporal imagination, I thought of time as a kind of braid rather than as a infinitesimally thin line. And then I read an essay by the Native American Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte, which is called Time as Kinship, about time in the context of the climate crisis. But what Kyle Whyte points out is that when you see this looming catastrophe, which is already happening in so many parts of the world to so many communities, your reaction is naturally one of fear that, or terror that this horrible thing is happening.
And what do we do when we are afraid? We tend to stop thinking creatively for one thing. Not just that, but politically we see that people give up their agency when they’re afraid. They want strongmen or they want, you know, the technocrats to take over. Technology is going to solve it, and someone else is going to solve the problem. The alternative, and what Kyle Whyte points out in his essay, is that if you see the climate as a problem of changing and broken relationships… So if we think about people working together to remake ourselves and the world, it’s not just that when people work together, things get done faster. It’s that the subjective experience of time changes; more things get done, there’s more creativity, you are less susceptible to fear. And if we can build that, then maybe there’s hope.
Paul Shrivastava 23:07:
Thank you for listening to this podcast from the International Science Council’s Center for Science Futures, done in partnership with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego. Visit futures.council.science for the extended versions of these conversations, which will be released in January 2024. They delve deeper into science, its organization and where it could take us in the future.
Join us next week when I’ll be having a conversation with deeply thoughtful Fernanda Trías, author of Pink Slime.