The Fine Art of Science

a decaying Douglas fir log in an Oregon forest feeds millions. Mostly very small things.
A decaying Douglas fir log in an Oregon forest feeds millions. And they’re mostly, very, very small. Pastel and graphite on paper.

Pauline Kael said, “Movies are a combination of art and mass medium”. Why isn’t there a good word for the combination of art and science? Scientific Illustration is self-explanatory but the term doesn’t really apply here. Art merged with science is hard to pin down. Dig your fingers into the meat pie of creativity and trickle its gravy onto the clean lab floor- sounds fascinating, but what do we call it?

There should be a word. Something really resonant. Movies is already taken.

Grayton State Beach coastal dune lake habitat near Pensacoloa, Florida. Watercolor over pencil.
Grayton State Beach coastal dune lake habitat near Pensacoloa, Florida. Watercolor over pencil.

There’s a movement afoot to combine and collaborate: science with painting, science folded into music, science shaken, not stirred, with poems and a twist of philosophy. It might sound a little counterintuitive, but opposites attract. We balance each other. Throw the confetti.

Science has so far been the brave instigator of much of this cross-fertilization. Meaningful exploration forges on, nameless or not. I took part in a symposium this summer in Portland, Oregon, at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference, sharing my 15-minute presentation with a group of writers, artists and scientists.  We threw our hands across the gulf of our separate services and locked fingers for hours. Dancing should have broken out; certainly, music did. You’d be amazed at how many ecologists come equipped with a guitar.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, August 2012
At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, August 2012

E.O.Wilson ruminates over the art/science merger in Biophilia:

“…art generally considered to be important appears to be marked by one consistent quality: it explores the unknown reaches of the mind…Words pour in and around, and the image takes substantial form, at first believed familiar, then seen as strikingly new. It is something, as in Thomas Kinsella’s Midsummer,”

that for this long year

Had hid and halted like a deer

Turned marvelous,

Parted the tragic grasses, tame,

Lifted its perfect head and came

To welcome us. “

12/16/12 Fogbound, warm morning. Their forms are vague and misty, but with binoculars it’s possible to watch the bonaparte’s gulls, foster’s terns and big clunky pelicans fishing. The pelicans flap slowly and fold in half for a dive. They sit on the surface and sort out their pouches, attracting hovering laughing gulls looking for spillage. The pelicans are superb; they drop from heights, spear-like, bill-first, bob up and tip back to swallow. They fall like meteors and take off again like heavily loaded cargo planes. A few flaps and they are erased by mist.
12/16/12 Fogbound, warm morning. Forms are vague and misty, but with binoculars I can make out bonaparte’s gulls, forster’s terns and big clunky pelicans, all fishing. The pelicans flap slowly and fold in half to dive, then sit on the surface and sort out their pouches. Laughing gulls hover, waiting for spillage. The pelicans are superb; they drop from heights, spear-like, bill-first, bob up and tip back, swallowing. They fall like meteors and take off like loaded cargo planes. A few flaps, and they’re erased by mist.

With that, I wish you a warm welcome to the New Year, with prospects for peace, art and science combined, and maybe a good word for that, too.

16 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Science

  1. visionari1 says:

    Brilliant, beautifull, wonderfully creative and on the point, happy travels and self indulgence,
    Artistic wishes for the new year from NZ & if your pass this way call in!

  2. Kathy Walters says:

    I love it! Thanks for adding a new post. I started reading your blog just as you stopped posting. So I read older posts. Wonderful reading and viewing!

  3. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Debby,

    What a tiny little subject you’ve chosen for your return to blogdom!! Happy New Year. It’s great to see a new post.

    Science is a far newer interest to me than art is so I’m a bit hesitant to say much about it. My own feeling is that a search for truth is common to both art and science. But I’d say, much to the chagrin of both myself and my artists friends I’m sure, that art has pretty much given up on the search for truth, or at a minimum become embarrassed by it. On the other hand how many scientists understand that expression itself has a truth to it and that many artists are as interested in being truthful in their manner of expression as they are in the detailed portrayal of the subject? To me this is exemplified by what I see as a scientific preference for Fuertes over Audubon. One reason I love the work of so many of the artists of the Society of Wildlife Artists is that they seem to have a love of expression through the artistic media they use that is equal to or stronger than the desire to accurately portraying the subject.

    Perhaps science doesn’t get as sidetracked by fashion as art does. Though since I don’t inhabit the scientific world all that much I could be wrong. Still right now it strikes me as more honest than the world of art, at least the visual arts.

    But I think that you’re right in that they really do have much in common. Who knows what might happen if they actually do merge a bit? I do think it’s really interesting how many people have taken up live sketching over the last few years. That must say something.

    1. zeladoniac says:

      It really does come down to a basic search for meaning, doesn’t it? That’s another obsessive trait artists have in common with scientists (obsession is kind of the norm, from what I’ve seen on both sides. And hooray for obsession). Curiosity + observation = expression/results, in both the arts and sciences. Interestingly, neither artists or scientists expect their own results (a painting or a paper) to be the final word on their work. It’s satisfying just to plant another paver on the trail of progress, either way.
      Thanks for the insightful comment, Ken- you hit it on the head, as alway. It’s good hearing from you again. Happy New Year!

  4. adroe says:

    Happy New Years!
    I am so happy to see you online again Debby. I have missed your blog posts, as well as living vicariously through your travels and brushes.

    I have had the fortune to live with one foot in the art world and another in the realm of science (I am an evolutionary biologist). I have been active in both fields for my entire life, but in response to your post and the follow-up comments I want to speak from the scientific perspective.

    Science has taken much from the art world and indeed has much to learn as well. Creativity is key to discovery, whether it is a new technique or analysis. Like in art, creativity in science is viewing the world from a new perspective and developing a way of representing that view to a broader audience.

    Beauty is also a key component to the scientific method. No matter how ground breaking the scientific discovery, if that evidence is not presented in a clear, elegant, beautiful way, then its meaning will be lost or overlooked. Elegance in thought, as well as presentation is undervalued. Well written scientific prose is rare, but incredible when found.

    Unfortunately creativity, aesthetic and elegance is often overlooked during the training of our young scientists. How much better would our two field be if graduate students were required to take a visual arts class?

    I look forward to future posts and thoughts. Perhaps our paths will cross some at some conference in the future.

    1. zeladoniac says:

      I heartily agree with everything you’ve said here. Creativity, intuitive leaps, and curious minds are key to discovery in both fields. And science students are usually receptive to taking up sketching- observations are often better observed (and more elegant) with a nice field drawing plopped in the middle of the notes. It’s grand to hear from a scientist who also practices art- thanks for adding your perspective.

  5. Mitch says:

    Happy New Year and welcome back! Your absence was at first worrysome, and finally sorely missed.
    Art + science provokes thought, but when you add peace, the word that comes to mind is “utopia.”

  6. Tammy says:

    Thank you for your wonderful post! I think of art and science as being two sides of the same coin. Both require imagination and creativity as fuel and they compliment each other. In teaching my son science, especially when he was younger, I used art as the vehicle to get him hooked. You’re right. We need a good word for where science meets art.

  7. Gabrielle says:

    Hurrah! Motmot is back! Interesting thoughts on science and the arts. I’ve heard there’s a new museum in Salt Lake City, UT called the Leonardo Museum which focuses on science, technology and art. I hope to be able to check it out some day as I am drawn to both science and the arts.

    Love the fogbound pelicans by the way. Welcome back!

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