The art in science

by Janice Nigro

In biological and medical research today, we have the ability to generate terabytes of data at an unprecedented pace. A genome in a week. It is overwhelming to think of how to extract anything meaningful from so much data, and yet, there it was a few weeks ago, an image made up of thousands of small blocks of bold color, fitting onto a mere half of a page of a recent article. In that one image, the authors were able to convey an important message about the molecular make-up of human low grade gliomas after years of collaborative effort between several laboratories around the USA.

The image reminded me of a reductionist painting by Piet Mondrian.

Mondrian’s later work was an abstraction of nature, an attempt to represent nature with basic repeated elements made up of primary colors, vertical and horizontal lines, and rectangular shapes. His premise was not so far from a cluster diagram derived with numbers (as described above), which reveals the similarity in a biological entity, such as human brain tumors.

Cluster diagrams reinforce how important visual representation of scientific data is. Such images provoke the question of why art and science today are treated largely as nonintersecting disciplines, and whether scientific programs are ignoring art as an important tool that transmits information to other scientists and to the public, and fuels our own investigations. The cluster diagram is a terrific example of a visual image produced from of a large body of data that can lead to new insights.

Historically there has been a recognized interdependence between these disciplines. Artists, or scientists who were artists, were necessary to document findings/results. Darwin’s finches had to be drawn, and one of the most well known scientists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, was both artist and scientist. He was able to most elegantly illustrate his own scientific ideas, which today as well as at the time are considered prized drawings.

Today art is not formally recognized as an integral part of science, but as scientists, we must still use illustrations and images to document and present our work. While we do not think of ourselves as artists, the first thing we do while reading a paper is look at the figures. Yet in our training, these disciplines are philosophically taught as independent of one another.

In many ways, the two disciplines are fundamentally related to each other. Artists use a variety of tools dependent on science and technological development. Any structure built throughout the ages is a collaboration between art, science, and technology. We like buildings that are aesthetically pleasing, but they also have to stand up. Photography is used for art. It requires a technical apparatus, and photographs succeed as art based on principles of light and exposure and post-image processing whether digital or on film. Even in the simple natural dyes for grasses used in woven baskets from an African country, there is science.

And in the case of da Vinci, as well as other artists from long ago, science is bringing art back to life.

In science, there are two general ways that I see art: the art we must use to interpret data and illustrate and write our stories, and the art in nature and/or in science.

In the first way, art is necessary to convey or outline ideas, and we use it to verify results. In writing, we need to be able to tell a story. The better we can tell a story, the more people will remember our results. In public speaking, a presentation is more effective and engaging when the images are clear and set against the right background color and font. How many different ways has the simple formula of E = mc2 appeared in fonts or handwriting to engage a reader?

The idea generating part of science to me is also a creative discipline. I call it art; others may call it problem solving. We take facts before us, instead of colors, and assemble them in new ways. Technologies, such as CRISPR, PCR, or molecular biology in general, are a brilliant translation of information obtained from nature into something new and technically useful. Any illustration of the process could be considered a thing of beauty, maybe like da Vinci’s flying machine. Once a methodology is established, we, however, tend to focus on learning how to use it rather than the thought processes that led to its development.

In the second way, the art in nature or in science appears to us naturally or because we have engineered it. Or some combination of both! Artists at the beginning of the last century saw the art in nature and derived inspiration from drawings that had been primarily used to document all types of life forms (Bioart). We design our own experiments so that they tell us something, but we have developed essential tools, like paints, so that a result is something beautiful to look at as well as informative.

One of the most useful tools we have as scientists today is fluorescent imaging. Here, nature gave us the basic tool, green fluorescent protein from jellyfish, which with molecular biology is engineered to give color to specific cells and organisms. Proteins that fluoresce at different wavelengths to yield new colors have either been derived from other animals or engineered, and when different fluorescing proteins are simultaneously expressed in a living organism, anatomical structures can be lit up like a well-designed neon sign.

A terrific example of the power in this approach is Brainbow, which was designed to follow neurons in the mammalian brain (A technicolour approach to the connectome, Connectome project). Take a look at the photograph entitled “Brainstem.” It is informative, and it is beautiful.

Our transmission of information, especially through the Internet, is becoming increasingly reliant on visual imagery. Individual scientific projects reach across multiple disciplines, and with open access, we have the power to reach anyone who has a computer. Good images thus have the possibility of superseding language barriers (it might even be your own language), so that a scientist can potentially reach an audience consisting of a broader spectrum of people.

Artists today are still dipping into our technical or rather biotechnical toolbox and have created a new genre of art, bioart; why not the other way around? Scientific programs naturally cross multiple disciplines (Bioart, Petri dish art). Art and artists might as well be formally added to the team.

The next time you begin an experiment or to write a paper, think of it perhaps as a work of art, for a different perspective.


Original image from work performed by J.M. Nigro and colleagues: Integrated Array-Comparative Genomic Hybridization and Expression Array Profiles Identify Clinically Relevant Molecular Subtypes of Glioblastoma