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Experiments in Art & Science

My wife and I were on our annual week-end trip to Cambridge to meet up with my old Darwinian friend Chris and his wife, for the usual round of reminiscing, punting and all that. On the Saturday (12th May) we decided to go to Kettle’s Yard to see the house and its exhibition and take in a light lunch.

As we were about to get our (free) tickets for the house visit, we saw people in T-shirts publicising a Gurdon Institute special event in partnership with Kettle’s Yard that we had been unaware of:

Experiments in Art & Science

A new collaboration between three contemporary artists 

and scientists from the Gurdon Institute, 

in partnership with Kettle’s Yard

The three artists in question were Rachel Pimm, David Blandy and Laura Wilson, looking at work being done at the labs, respectively, on:

This immediately grabbed our attention and we changed tack, and went to the presentation and discussion panel, intrigued to learn more about the project.

The Gurdon Institute do research exploring the relationship between human disease and development, through all stages of life.  They use the tools of molecular biology, including model systems that share a lot of their genetic make-up with humans. There were fascinating insights into how the environment can influence creatures, in ways that force us to relax Crick’s famous ‘Central Dogma’. But I am jumping into the science of what I saw, and the purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between art and science.

I was interested to learn if this project was about making the science more accessible – to draw in those who may be overwhelmed by the complexities of scientific methods – and to provide at least some insight into the work of scientists. Or maybe something deeper, that might be more of an equal partnership between art and science, in a two-way exchange of insights.

I was particularly intrigued by Rachel’s exploration of the memory of trauma, and the deep past revealed in the behaviour of worms, and their role as custodians of nature; of Turing’s morphogenesis, fractals and the emergence of self-similarity at many scales. A heady mix of ideas in the early stages of seeking expression.

David’s exploratory animations of moving through neural networks was also captivating.

As the scientists there noted, the purpose of the art may not be so much as to precisely articulate new questions, but rather to help them to stand back and see their science through fresh eyes, and maybe find unexpected connections.

In our modern world it has almost become an article of faith that science and art occupy two entirely distinct ways of seeing the world, but there was a time, as my friend Chris pointed out, when this distinction would not have been recognised.

Even within a particular department – be it mathematics or molecular biology – the division and sub-division of specialities makes it harder and harder for scientists to comprehend even what is happening in the next room. The funding of science demands a kind of determinism in the production of results which promotes this specialisation. It is a worrying trend because it is something of an anathema when it comes to playfulness or inter-disciplinary collaboration. 

This makes the Wellcome Trust’s support for the Gurdon Institute and for this Science-Art collaboration all the more refreshing. 

Some mathematicians have noted that even within the arcane world of number theory, group theory and the rest, it will only be through the combining of mathematical disciplines that some of the long-standing unresolved questions of mathematics be solved.

In areas such as climate change it was recognised in the lated 1950s that we needed to bring together a diverse range of disciplines to get to grips with the causes and consequences of man-made global warming: meteorologists, atmospheric chemists, glaciologists, marine biologists, and so many more.

We see through complex questions such as land-use and human civilisation how we must broaden this even further to embrace geography, culture and even history, to really understand how to frame solutions to climate change.

In many ways those (in my days) unloved disciplines such as geography, show their true colours as great integrators of knowledge – from human geography to history, from glaciology to food production – and we begin to understand that a little humility is no bad thing when we come to try to understand complex problems. Inter-disciplinary working is not just a fad; it could be the key to unlock complex problems that no single discipline can resolve.

Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and scientist. Ok, so not a scientist in the modern sense that David Wootton explores in his book The Invention of Science that was heralded in by the Enlightenment, but surely a scientist in the sense of his ability to forensically observe the world and try to make sense of it. His art was part of his method in exploring the world, be it the sinews of the human body or birds in flight, art and science were indivisible.

Since my retirement I have started to take up painting seriously. At school I chose science over art, but over the years have dabbled in painting but never quite made progress. Now, under the watchful eye of a great teacher, Alison Vickery, I feel I am beginning to find a voice. What she tells me hasn’t really changed, but I am finally hearing her. ‘Observe the scene, more than look at the paper’; ‘Experiment and don’t be afraid of accidents, because often they are happy ones’; the list of helpful aphorisms never leaves me.

A palette knife loaded with pigment scrapped across a surface can give just the right level of variegation if not too wet and not too dry; there is a kind of science to it. The effect is to produce a kind of complexity that the human eye seems to be drawn to: imperfect symmetries of the kind we find alluring in nature even while in mathematics we seek perfection.

Scientists and artists share many attributes.

At the meeting hosted by Kettle’s Yard, there was a discussion on what was common between artists and scientists. My list adapts what was said on the day: 

  • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
  • ability to acutely observe the world; 
  • a fascination with patterns;
  • not afraid of failure;
  • dedication to keep going; 
  • searching for truth; 
  • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
  • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

How then are art and science different?  

Well, of course, the key reason is that they are asking different questions and seeking different kinds of answers.

In art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see. and how do I make sense of it?’ , and ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’. If I see a tree, I see the sinews of the trunk and branches, and how the dappled light reveals fragmentary hints as to the form of the tree.  I observe the patterns of dark and light in the canopy. A true rendering of colour is of secondary interest (this is not a photograph), except in as much as it helps reveal the complexity of tree: making different greens by playing with mixtures of 2 yellows and 2 blues offers an infinity of greens which is much more interesting than having tubes of green paint (I hardly ever buy green).

Artists do not have definite answers to unambiguous questions. It is OK for me to argue that J M W Turner was the greatest painter of all time, even while my friend vehemently disagrees. When I look at a painting (or sculpture, or film) and feel an emotional response, there is no need to explain it, even though we often seem obliged to put words to emotions, we know these are mere approximations.

In science (or experimental science at least), we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypothesis that challenges the boundaries of our knowledge. We can then design experiments to test the hypothesis, and if we are successful (in the 1% of times that maybe we are lucky), we will have advanced the knowledge of our subject. Most times this is an incremental learning, building on a body of knowledge. Other times, we may need to break something down before building it up again (but unlike the caricature of science often seen on TV, science is rarely about tearing down a whole field of knowledge, and starting from scratch). 

When I see the tree, I ask, why are the leaves of Copper Beech trees deep purple in colour rather than green? Are the energy levels in the chlorophyll molecule somehow changed to produce a different colour or is a different molecule involved?

In science, the objective is to find definite answers to definite questions. That is not to say that the definite answer is in itself a complete answer to all the questions we have. When Schrodinger asked the question ‘What is Life?’ the role and structure of DNA were not known, but there were questions that he could ask and find answers to. This is the wonder of science; this stepping stone quality.

I may find the answer as to why the Copper Beech tree’s leaves are not green, but what of the interesting question of why leaves change colour in autumn and how they change, not from one state (green) to another (brown), but through a complex process that reveals variegations of colour as Autumn unfolds? And what of a forest? How does a mature forest evolve from an immature one; how do pioneer trees give way to a complex ecology of varyingly aged trees and species over time? A leaf begs a question, and a forest may end up being the answer to a bigger question. Maybe we find that art, literature and science are in fact happy bedfellows after all.

As Feynman said, I can be both fascinated by something in the natural world (such as a rainbow) while at the same time seeking a scientific understanding of the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it seems that while artists and scientists have so much in common, their framings struggle to align, and that in a way is a good thing. 

There is great work done in the illustration of scientific ideas, in textbooks and increasingly in scientific papers. I saw a recent paper on the impact of changes to the stratospheric polar vortex on climate, which was beautifully illustrated. But this is illustration, intended to help articulate those definite questions and answers. It is not art.

So what is the purpose of bringing artists into laboratories to inspire them; to get their response to the work being done there?

The answer, as they say, is on the tin (of this Gurdon Institute collaborative project): It is an experiment.

The hypothesis is that if you take three talented and curious young artists and show them some leading edge science that touches on diverse subjects, good things happen. Art happens.

Based on the short preview of the work being done which I attended, good things are already happening and I am excited to see how the collaboration evolves.

Here are some questions inspired in my mind by the discussion 

  • How do we understand the patterns in form in the ways that Turing wrote about, based on the latest research? Can we explore ‘emergence of form’ as a topic that is interesting, artistically and scientifically?
  • In the world of RNA epigenetics can the previously thought of ‘junk DNA’ play a part in the life of creatures, even humans, in the environment they live in? Can we explore the deep history of our shared genotype, even given our divergent phenotypes? Will the worm teach us how to live better with our environment?
  • Our identity is formed by memory and as we get older we begin to lose our ability to make new memories, but older ones often stay fast, but not always. Surely here there is a rich vein for exploring the artistic and scientific responses to diseases like Alzheimers?

Scientists are dedicated and passionate about their work, like artists. A joint curiosity drives this new collaborative Gurdon Institute project.

The big question for me is this: can art reveal to scientists new questions, or new framings of old questions, that will advance the science in novel ways? Can unexpected connections be revealed or collaborations be inspired?

I certainly hope so.

P.S. the others in my troop did get to do the house visit after all, and it was wonderful, I hear. I missed it because I was too busy chatting to the scientists and artists after the panel discussion; and I am so grateful to have spent time with them.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

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