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Art for Science - Science communication through art

Tackling huge scientific issues such as climate change with art can help form a cultural connection

Post written by Elsa Cousins.

I and many of my colleagues have chosen to pursue a path of idealism, devoting ourselves to researching sustainability and conservation. I hope that by joining the ranks of other dedicated scientists and students, I can make some small change in the world. But science can sometimes feel out of reach, removed from those who aren’t in the club. That is why we write, to reach out and tell people that they matter and why the world around them matters. Scientific writing for a public audience is a departure from the usual dry journal articles; it is a union with art. The combination of visual and audio media with other creative writing approaches can reach out and inspire participation in protecting our planet.

Art has always worked to bridge the gap between people and the environment, in the form of poetry, prose, paintings or, more recently, popular science blogs (like the one you’re reading right now!). Leonardo Da Vinci, the original Renaissance man, illustrated his creative and shocking inventions and ideal proportions of the human body. Charles Darwin drew in his field notebooks, noting how the beaks of finches in the Galapagos varied so widely. Ralph Waldo Emerson may be a familiar name - he wrote on the tonic of wilderness and the importance of reconnecting with nature. These famous examples of men using forms of art to study nature are far from the only instances of using art to communicate scientific ideas. Today, a much greater diversity of artists and scientists promote the message of beauty in nature in various ways, focusing on engaging audiences on an emotional level and establishing a cultural awareness. Galleries have joined in this effort, such as the Cape Farewell project and other artist communities such as Artists and Climate Change. These community efforts bring together individual artists and scientists to reach a wider audience than the individuals could on their own. Whether the merge of art and science relies on materials that connect us with nature through sculptural artwork, or detailed illustrations of nature for botanical textbooks, these interesting images and forms can inspire a more diverse variety of viewers to look deeper into the subject.

Fig.1 An example of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastic drawings of water wheels. This inventor left behind many note books full of ideas that seemed wildly unreachable in his time period. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fig.2 Botanical illustration from Cape Farewell, part of a project bringing together artists and botanists at undeveloped urban sites. Source: capefarewell.com

Many researchers are also photographers or illustrators, finding beauty in their work. In my own art (figure 3), I paint images of complex biodiversity to encourage the viewer to find unexpected beauty in things normally overlooked and to appreciate the intricacies of natural forms. By sharing this, we are trying to encourage more exploratory thinking and inspire interest in science and nature. At conferences and meetings we accompany our work with images and graphs, using visuals to break down complex ideas into accessible and interesting explanations. This art is integral to successful scientific communication. Big name scientific journals, such as Nature, have published short pieces on how prose should play a bigger role in scientific writing in order to reach a wider audience [1]. Overwhelming and seemingly distant ideas, such as climate change, can be absorbed and comprehended through art by incorporating visual elements with scientific thought.

I believe that promoting science and communication through art is a great way to expand access and understanding. We are increasingly connected and it has become easier to share information, and doing it in an interesting or eye catching way helps improve dispersal of knowledge. It also increases participation of a wider audience. Artists, scientists, and people who don’t fall into either group can all appreciate the beauty of nature and the vitality of our relationship with it.

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Fig.3 Art focusing on expressing the importance of biodiversity and nature. This type of work is reminiscent of botanical illustrations, merging the traditional scientific style with a freer artistic technique. Source: Elsa Cousins

Whether you hike with your phone in hand to capture images of the scenery, or keep an illustrated journal, or just stop to appreciate the fall foliage on city streets, you may have felt this connection. We all share a love for beautiful things and the duty of both scientists and artists is to reveal that beauty, even if we do it in unconventional ways (e.g. artists sculpting icebergs out of water or scientists taking macro photos of bees). Through the appreciation of beauty in the small things, the interest in the weird, and the devotion to the unexpected, both science and art are vital to the culture of our society and work best in combination.

References

[1] Woolston, Chris. (2015) A call for beautiful prose in papers. Nature Research highlights: Social Selection 517(7536): 531.

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