“Science is the Art of Knowing and Art is the Science of Feeling”
At the atomic level, a rainbow is nothing more than reflected light rays. But photons can not be distinguished by the naked eye. Before Francis Bacon’s rigorous standard for truthfulness, the physical realm was made up of spirits, omens and signs. Defended with the opinion that only someone with a divine touch could create something as beautiful as the colors of the rainbow. However, as science and natural philosophy diverged, nature’s purpose shifted as well. Controlling it became more important than understanding it. Science visualizations draw attantion to a physical phenomena in a beautiful and educational way. The primary purpose is to use create a sensory experience to comunicate and “extra-sensory reality” (Burton). To balance the desire to control with the desire to comprehend.
Even though it is classified as a fine art, new media extends beyond the screen of traditional media. With the use of sensors, art piece can react to the environment much like the sympathetic nervous system causes you to recoil your arm after touching a flame. A simple line of code can add a temporal aspect. Sculptures do not simple occupy space, they change over time. The change does not have to be repetitious. A piece can be constantly changing without resembling former versions of itself. These qualities make new media perfect for scientific visualizations. They can interact with the physical world much like a plant grows with water.
Will Burton was a designer determined to make the invisible visible. He created a sculpture of a cell before there was a consensus of what a cell looked like and how it functioned. At the beginning of an era where applied sciences was changing culture in incomprehensible ways, he understood the need to educate a wider audience about the fundamentals. He made a giant interactive brain and atom to show people how our bodies are wired. His artwork was appreciated by the scientific world. He added creativity where there was only logic. He did not shy away from complexity. He was respected because he held the same high standards for his art practice as a scientist draws conclusions from his data. He used metaphors to communicate what was unimaginable. Through comparison and interrelatedness, he tricked the mind into comprehension. Test tube Baby, featured at the top of this post is an example. It is not unlike a car was described as a horseless carriage. In using visual communication his work reached a wider audience. Culture and science blended.
I share a respect for science but a desire to understand it in visual terms. In his career of design and science, some of his best decisions was the use of Helvetica, knowing his audience and getting professional feedback. Helvetica “so plain that there is nothing but the message to see. In this respect, the medium serves the message” (Remingston and Fripp, 84). To scientists, logic is the goal and aesthetics has little to no value. During his work at Scope, doctors was his audience. He chooses a textured book because he understands a doctor’s reliance on touch. “Physicians accustomed to using their hands as diagnostic tools responded well to a magazine in which feature stories might be written on rough-textured, ragged-edged paper.. the magazine as both substantial and benign” (58). In the designing stages for the cell, he made sure that many scientists, experts in their field, gave feedback about how the pieces were to be represented. These three aspects of his practice were deliberate choices that made him perfect for science visualizations.
There are moral reasons to depicting science. Society depends on the technology developed in the applied sciences. Water, heat, fuel. What once belonged to nature now follows our rules. But not without a lot trial and research. Our lives are shaped by technology, yet it is easy to forget this. Like a illness, we forget our body until it stops working properly. Who’s to say that even with background knowledge, you would move beyond consumer to appreciator? Science visualizations are like diplomats. They respect the facts of nature but also the perceptions of the audience. My belief is: by transforming information into an experience, a passive audience can become a converted science aficionado.
Remington, R. and Fripp R. “Design and Science. The Life and Work of Will Burton.” Lund Humphries. Burlington. 2007. Print.