Science and Art: Bridging the Gap

I bet “science” is the last word you would have expected to see here. After all, what do stark, white coat clad, equation solving, pipette-wielding scientists have to do with art? Art is about seeing things in different ways, expressing possibilities, and asking questions. Science is about answering in the absolute – about figuring out THE way to see things.

What if I told you they’re really not that different?

A scientist and lover of art myself, I’ve long been attempting to bridge the gap between the scientific and the artistic, or, as it often appears, the objective and the subjective. To aid me in my search for the invisible thread that binds the two disciplines, I turned to the experts – the artists featuring their works in Columbia Science Review’s Through the Looking Glass: An Exploration of Art and Science – to see how they incorporate the world of evolution and microorganisms into their art, and to figure out where science and art intersect.

For one, I discovered, they’re both about visual communication: using an image – a graph, a landscape, a photograph – to succinctly and powerfully convey a meaning. “I think that one of the most important intersections between science and art is scientific visualization,” says artist Allison Cohen, BC ’14 (also a CSR illustrator).  “Most scientific information, especially mechanistic biological information, can best be communicated visually, which is where art comes in.  In many cases, images can express scientific findings and observations more clearly than written descriptions.”

It’s true – a scientific journal article relies heavily on its figures, its graphical displays or artfully crafted schematics. It is the responsibility of the visual aspects of the paper to communicate its entire meaning. And who hasn’t at some time opened a biology textbook and seen the pages covered with brightly colored illustrations – cartoons of cells or of biomes, and bold, streamlined graphs succinctly explaining an entire page’s worth of text. Maybe it’s unlike anything you would see hanging on a gallery wall, but the visual aspects of art and science are born of the same stuff and merge flawlessly to achieve a single goal: communication.

But the connection can also be seen on a deeply personal level, a frame of reference from which we can understand the crossroads where the self meets the forces that carved the world around us. Take artist Joana Ricou, for instance. At Carnegie Mellon University, Ricou studied both art and biology, and let her understanding of each inspire the way she viewed the other. “For me,” she explained, “biology endlessly opens questions about the body and identity that I explore through art. I’m really interested in how we are made of many parts and many types of parts, some very old, some very new, all running together, sometimes in parallel, redundancy or opposition.”

The product of Ricou’s scientific lens is a beautiful, unique, and incredibly thought-provoking collection. Soft but vibrant, ethereal but striking in shape and composition, her macro views of neurons and cells, gently curving spinal cords, and microbe-dotted human figures show impressive insight into where we come from, what we’re made of, and how we fit into something larger than ourselves. Her painting “Other Self (the human microbiome)” (pictured here) subtly encapsulates her science-motivated world-view. Inspired by research on the millions of microscopic organisms that reside inside every human body, the painting depicts two layers of a single person and acknowledges the nuanced fact that though the bacteria are a major part of us, “the extent of their influence on how we feel and who we are is still to be determined.”

And so I got my answer to the problem of the gap: the chasm is not as wide as we anticipated, and we can cross between the realms of science and of art more easily than we think. When we’re examining ourselves, our bodies, our natural geometry, and our surroundings, we’re treading on the grounds of science. When we’re constructing models, graphs, diagrams, and illustrations, we’re borrowing from the methods of art. Either way you try to pass, you’re straddling the dividing line, one foot firmly on either side. Looks like we’ve just closed the gap.

To learn more about Science and Art, visit Columbia Science Review’s Through the Looking Glass: An Exploration of Art and Science, on Friday, April 20, from 5-7 pm in the Wein Lounge. Admission is free. Through the Looking Glass is sponsored in part by the Arts Initiative at Columbia University. This funding is made possible by a generous gift from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation.

– Emma Meyers, CC ‘13

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