Me? I do science. I don’t do art.
Or so I thought?
A few years ago, I probably could have told you that it’s important for scientists and other “technically minded” people to appreciate art. I figured that it kept us sane, helped our creativity. I thought that it allowed us to stay in touch with “the rest of the world” (aka non-scientists).
What I probably couldn’t have told you is that there is really no way for scientists to avoid art. As much as we all like to fear what we don’t understand, maybe we understand more than we think.
Back in 2008, I was doing some fluorescence microscopy imaging of the single-celled green algae that I’m (still) studying in my graduate research. I stained the cell membrane green, and I expected that the chloroplast of the cell would naturally fluoresce red (by the magic of autofluorescence). I was also playing with a new blue dye (I think it was LysoTracker blue), and I wasn’t sure what part of the cell it would stain. So I did a bit of imaging with a confocal microscope, merged the three color channels (blue, green, and red), and this is what came out:
Did I think it was art? Nah… at least not until the manager of the microscopy facility printed out my image, framed it, and hung it on the wall of the microscope room. It was a bizarre experience – it sure did look like art! But then again, I don’t do art. Right?
I’m certainly not qualified to be discussing “what is art,” and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would say that my little multi-colored banana is not art. But my point is that there is no denying the connection. Why was my image hung on the wall? To motivate better science? To show that this microscope can make pretty pictures? (It was the Leica confocal at the Biological Imaging Facility at Northwestern University, by the way.) To cover a smudge on the wall? All of the above? None of the above?
I can’t really answer that for sure, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is that art and science are clearly related, and I think we can all do ourselves a favor by cultivating that relationship. Artists, scientists… we’re all trying to understand, explain, and improve our world. Doesn’t it make the most sense to do that together?
Ok ok, so one lucky fluorescence image of a colorful micro-banana is not going to make the world a better place. But all you have to do is visit the Wikipedia article on fluorescence microscopy to see more (better) examples – here’s a cancer cell dividing:
Does the image facilitate understanding of cancer growth? Most likely. Is this art or is it science? Absolutely.