Reframing Science

Rebecca Kamen in her studio.

Rebecca Kamen in her studio.

Once upon a time scientists relied on artists to communicate their discoveries, and artists looked to the sciences for inspiration. The modern world witnessed a severing of these ties as increased specialization in science made it less accessible to the average person. Part of CHF’s mission is to show chemists and the general public how science and art have interacted in the past and continue to do so today. Also promoting this cause are Rebecca Kamen and Ivan Amato. Kamen is an artist who draws inspiration from science and whose work is featured in CHF’s exhibit Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry. Amato is a science writer whose work often strives to provoke “awe and wonder” through scientific imagery. These friends and collaborators recently spoke with Chemical Heritage about the shared qualities of science and art, and how each discipline can inform and inspire the other. –JD

Ivan Amato (IA): I think there are a lot of commonalities in science and art: both are investigations driven by curiosity and engagement and a love of the world, and a desire to understand it in ways that are meaningful to us as human beings. Both are experimental. Scientists probe the world in various ways to see how it reacts, and artists do the same thing, although it’s also a probe of psyches.

Rebecca Kamen (RK): One of the things I’ve discovered working in scientific libraries and interacting with senior scientific scholars is that scientists tend to look at one small bit of information. Viewing science from an artistic standpoint, I’m always amazed at how interconnected aspects of art and science are. I think one reason for the difference in viewpoint is that artists don’t have the same rules and regulations when they investigate aspects of their particular field. I think young researchers especially have to follow a certain protocol so they can justify whatever they’re investigating, whereas artists are able to investigate freely.

Ivan Amato

Ivan Amato.

IA: Rebecca, like me, is trying to find new ways of communicating what I consider the revelatory role of scientific discovery—scientists revealing how science works. That to me is one of science’s most uplifting aspects—and an invitation to experience awe and wonder. Often what happens in public discourse is scientific discovery in the form of technological applications, foisting upon us either good things or bad things and decisions about how we lead our lives. The artist’s approach embraces that kind of revelatory aspect of science without demanding that the public think in the categories of the professional scientist. Rather than conveying a concept in a way that would get someone an A on a physics or chemistry exam, what is conveyed is an emotional relationship with that revelatory aspect of science.

RK: Several years ago while doing research, I had this epiphany: there were scientists—universal investigators—who used artistry to capture their observations and data. Recently I came across a site with images of chemists with molecular models—[Francis] Crick and others—and I saw how lovingly they were holding objects that conveyed an idea. And in Italy last summer I looked at drawings of Galileo’s observations of sunspots. That he recorded them via artistic mediums that I use and teach others to use was astounding to me.

IA: It’s interesting you bring that up, because I’ve been reading the works of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, one of the earliest microscopists. Another famous figure [of that time] was Robert Hooke, who was really quite an artist, and his engravings of these early microscopical images were so popular that the elites of the time would cut them out of books with a razor, frame them, and hang them on their walls—defiling the books but recognizing the beauty of the imagery. Before photography there was in a very real sense a marriage of science and art. The father of neurology, Thomas Willis, retained Christopher Wren—the great 17th-century polymath and architect of London—to do the most amazing drawings and engravings of neuroanatomy. Looking at these engravings is looking at art—in the interest of scientific communication.

RK: We are conduits between these two worlds. Ivan and I are passionate about developing programs that will allow people to experience the sense of awe and wonder that we have been able to experience in our own lives and in working together. People ask me if this is something that can be taught. I think it can—by drawing these types of analogies both verbally and through imagery, because people respond to images. Many years ago I worked with a researcher in pediatric oncology, and I asked him point blank—and he was a Cambridge-trained, traditional scientist with no art background at all—whether when evaluating something to do with pediatric cancer he’d rather see a page full of numbers or a microarray. He said, “Oh, absolutely a microarray.” He said he could evaluate something much more quickly by looking at an image.

IA: I tried to convey this message at a National Academy of Sciences meeting a few months back, which looked at the question, “How do you get chemistry into the prime time?” Chemistry suffers from what I call the Rodney Dangerfield lament—“I don’t get no respect.” For most people it’s a means to an end—a means to the drug, a means to a new material. Chemists worry about how their discipline is portrayed; they wish more people would become chemists. What strikes me is that people must love science first, and then maybe they’ll become a chemist. Jumping the gun and trying to get people to love the discipline and all its technical aspects and its mathematical expressions is not the best way to go. The multimedia approaches that Rebecca and others’ work shows are a way to start the dialogue and help people think of science in a more expansive way.

RK: A study on Nobel laureates in chemistry found that many had at some point in their development a significant art experience. That could manifest as liking to draw, paint, or listen to music. I interpret the research as allowing the laureates to look at something in their field in a different way. Art gives you that prismatic lens that allows you to see things within a larger worldview.