Thursday, November 29, 2007

Way Cool Post

Frequent readers may know that a prominent sub-theme of this blog is the relationship between science and art, a subject of considerable interest to myself. Scientist/Artist Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera has an excellent post on the subject.

Although the article is mostly about whether art can inform science, I found it jarring at some points because my view of art and science is so conflated, namely that science IS art (note this doesn't make the reverse also true). I don't know if Jessica would agree with me on that point, I was struck by this sentence from her post:

"Even in the simplest botanical print, or inventory of a wonder cabinet, the artist always “frames” the science - it can’t be helped! Choice of medium, choice of angle, choice of context - all of these are choices. The line between representation and story-telling is very fuzzy indeed...."

Now substitute scientist for artist. Science, then, is a way of constructing a world-view from our experiences. This does not imply that science is making stuff up and passing it off as "truth". In fact quite the opposite; fiction is abhorrent in science as, I would argue, it is in art. Look at the following depiction of three molecules. Which one looks "real" to you?
My gut reaction on looking at the picture (before reading the text) was that there was something wrong with the one on the right. The one on the left was better, but there was still something weird about it. The middle one looked "right". As it turns out, "#3, the DNA cube, is a fictitious structure - but a real (though synthetic) molecule; #1, a nanotube synthase, is the one that’s entirely made up. #2, the rotary motor, is the real structure." Now I am totally not a structural biologist and I spend very little time looking at molecular structures. Why then did the middle one just "feel" right to me? I have no clue.

But I suspect that it's because science is art and beauty is our guide. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty", right?

Queen of Decay
watercolor on paper
Jessica Palmer 2005


  1. The quote, "the artist always “frames” the science - it can’t be helped! Choice of medium, choice of angle, choice of context - all of these are choices." reads better backwards: the science (of the medium) always frames (and/or limits) the artist.

    Both in the concrete sense of forcing the artist to reduce their imagination to a tangible medium, and in ("science art") providing the inspiration for the artist's ideas.

  2. The difference is that they shaded #2 correctly. If you squint your eyes so that things blur, it is the one that you can best understand the shape of.