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Should art do more for science?

Submitted by Anne Odling-Smee
From introduction ‘Beautiful Science’ debate at Imperial College London
18 Jun 2012

I think there is a distinction to be made between art that communicates scientific ideas, and art that appears to be scientifically engaged because it employs an aesthetic that one associates with science.

Whilst I think that the former offers significant potential value for both science and art, and for society in general; the latter I am mostly unconvinced by.

A good example of the former is the now instantly recognisable visual representation of DNA, which was inspired and probably created by the wife of the molecular biologist Francis Crick, who was a sculptor (the exact story here remains somewhat murky due to the usual controversies surrounding ownership of major scientific discoveries). The double helix image bears no relation to what DNA might actually look like, yet it provides a means of explaining how it works and has been instrumental in advancing scientific research.

Art that is more concerned with the aesthetic of science as opposed to the process of science is the type I find least inspiring, yet it succeeds in society remarkably well. This is the kind that tries to look ‘sciency’, piggy-backing off the beauty or surprise that nature freely provides whilst communicating nothing of its own about that beauty or surprise.

At a time when people are more confused and out of step than ever with the mechanics of the world they live in, I wonder whether adding this kind of aesthetic to our visually-saturated environment is really useful?

If scientists or science publishers would, or could, become more revealing with the images behind their often under-exposed research, and if artists would become better informed about the science behind the imagery or objects they employ, perhaps the rest of society would be better able to converse with their visual world, while simultaneously gain a better understanding of the way that world works.

Most scientists I know claim that art gains more from science than science gains from art. I’m inclined to agree that nowadays this is the case. But it hasn’t always has been so – during Leonardo da Vinci’s era the distinction was barely even relevant.

Since the industrial revolution began in the 18th century science has been shaping art through technology, for example through the invention of photography. Now that we have developed such sophisticated means of visualisation, and that the science community is increasingly opening its doors to others, perhaps it is time for art to become more of a key player in the scientific field, and to start help effect science back by offering alternative ways to visualise, or even explain it?

  • When art does help science: the double helix model of DNA