I have been thinking about art lately. The University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Academic Writing is coming up and I have just finished reviewing a few papers and grant applications. Mostly, this has made me consider how scientists can suffocate enthusiasm for even the most exciting finding in a single passive paragraph (never mind a whole string of them), and I may do a post about the horrors of the ‘academese’ language at a later stage. However, as the planning for next year’s Festival of the Mind is also underway, I wanted to write about something more positive: how art and science can work together.
Science and art to me are two sides of the same coin. Both aim to understand and describe the world, each in their own way. Science is the more objective of the two, but the way we gather and interpret data is without doubt influenced by our assumptions and world view. Art, on the other hand, challenges these assumptions, offers new ways of looking at the world. In short, science can answer our questions, but art may just help us ask the right ones. We need both to progress.
I have a great deal of time for art barging into the halls of data and analysis (or for that matter, science picking up the brushes and the paint). Either way, it is a bold move, and the results could be equally impressive. As a prime example on how art and science can work together, watch this video by Jan Fröjdman, who has painstakingly pieced together still images of Mars (from the HiRISE camera) to generate a representation of a ‘live’ flight over the red planet. It is an absolutely stunning interpretation of data.
Sheffield has a thriving art scene, and one that is not frightened of interacting with the sciences. The before-mentioned annual Festival of Academic Writing lets academics write creative pieces for the Journal of Imaginary Research and poke fun at the near-obligatory passive voice to their little hearts’ content. I very much enjoyed taking part last year and have just signed up for the upcoming November workshop. There are plenty of art installations throughout both the year and the city that communicate hot-off-the-press research to the public alongside more traditional science outreach events. The winter gardens is a frequently used venue and a good place to go for a bit of lateral thinking. There are artists who specialise in the communication of science and medicine, for example through the live-drawing of conferences, and who manage to reduce complex concepts to easily-interpreted visuals. And how about the live art-rock soundtrack to footage from the Hubble Telescope (plus three Georges Méliès films for good measure)? These are excellent ways of communicating science, as well as perhaps offering up new ways of looking at old questions.
Above are examples of Sheffield’s Art+Science scene (all images reproduced with permission). At the top left, there is Luke Jerram’s giant inflatable E. Coli hovering in the Winter Gardens, which surely had the potential to inspire both budding microbiologists and nightmares during KrebsFest 2015. Top right is artist Kate Sully‘s excellent work for The Journey of Reproductive Life from the University of Sheffield’s 2016 Festival of the Mind. The 2018 Festival is already being planned, with the involvement of animators, musicians, visual and digital artists, dancers and performers. Below Sully’s art is the cover of the Journal of Imaginary Research, vol 2 (2017), with work on volume 3 starting in November 2017 for publication in early 2018. Bottom left is a beautiful representation of signal in the ovary created by Isam Sharum, Felicity Tournant and Sofia Granados-Aparici (Ovary Research Group, 2015) – one of several pieces of science-inspired art within the University of Sheffield and one which I get to admire every morning.
Art has a lot to offer the sciences. Of course, if one want to take the mercenary view, a collaboration with the arts would probably fit the parameters for an impact case for the Research Excellence Framework. But aside from the REF, art can be used to communicate science, to inspire curiosity, to guide our questions and to make a whole generation dream of jet packs and rocket ships.