ScienceOnline2010: Art & Science - metaphors

part 1 can be found here, discussing metaphors with one thin slice of an example that is also rich and filling. To follow this series of posts, click the "scio10art" label below. (I will also be doing a workshop about digital painting with a tablet - for more on that, look for posts labelled with "scio10tablet".)

At the upcoming ScienceOnline2010 in January, I will be on hand again to lead a session discussing art & science, this time working alongside Felice Frankel. As last year, here are some of the subjects for this year's session in advance, so whether or not you will be attending you can take part in this discussion. I don't presume to speak for Felice here, although after a fun phone call a few weeks ago, I think it's safe to say we'll be leading the discussion and not heatedly debating.

It is important to recognize at the outset that categorizing artwork under a few banners will never fully satisfy. Even placing them along a spectrum, one type fading into another related type is inadequate, as art can contain imagery and meaning from any point in a spectrum.

But I'm gonna do it anyway. I think it helps to have some kind of a map to guide our discussion, while recognizing a different map would lea
d to different treasures. Let us also begin with the assumption that metaphors abound in science as well as in art, presumably because we humans find new and strange things easier to grasp when we relate them to things we already know.

Breezing past these issues, here are a few types of metaphor that appear in scientific imagery. (At Felice's suggestion, I'll often use the word imagery in place of art - it opens up the field.)

1) Data visualization metaphors- Graphs & charts. Medical & scientific illustration. Literal metaphors with a specific intent of clarifying information about real world phenomena. Last year, attendee Ryan Somma of Ideonexus blogged that "operating systems are basically a collection of metaphors for all the inner mechanical and electronic workings".

At left, a diagram of a representative triglyceride found in linseed oil (by Smokefoot, public domain). Not how it would appear to the naked eye, but a useful language of chemical metaphors is used to help visualize relationships.

At left, an image of cool objects past Pluto (by Lexicon, under GNU licence). Here, what does the positioning of the plutoids tell us? What metaphorical relationship is revealing a truth, and what is erroneous in favour of the metaphor?

2) Narrative & allegorical metaphors - Illustration. Image representing ideas. (my own artwork falls here). Often traditional materials are used in a Renaissance or children's book style.

At left, The Young Family, a cautionary metaphor by Patricia Piccinini, with a sort of bioengineering, uncanny valley, Frankensteinish motif.

Migrations, a blog banner (by me) commissioned for Dan Rhoads science blog, Migrations.

3) Abstracted science metaphors - Using data-gathering tools but divorced from immediately applicable data. Inspirational and provocative. Abstracted from science imagery. Image for image's sake (perhaps technique is the message, a la MacLuhan?) Much of Felice's work falls here, in my opinion.

Ferrofluid, a drop of ferro-fluid being affected by magnets, on a glass side with a yellow Post-It underneath. Copyright Felice Frankel.

The Cone, by Andy Goldsworthy, (left) an environmental and found object artist.

At what point does the artistic nature of a metaphor take over, creating an art object that is no longer scientifically useful in representing data? This question came up during SciBarCamp here in Toronto last May when an interesting disagreement came up between an artist and a biomedical simulator, and has been explored by Jessica Palmer at Bioephemera as well. We've all watched a metaphor run away with itself - this is neither good nor bad, but certainly useful in a different way than a specific metaphor describing single phenomena.

There may kind of be a 4th category as well, though I do not know if we will deal with it in session.

4) Metaphors that mislead - here I'm thinking about things like the overly mechanical illustrations by creationists to help them explain the faulty irreducible complexity arguments of eyes and bacterial flagellum. Medical illustration illuminates certain features while omitting others for the sake of clarification, but I suspect so-called intelligent design illustrations omit and highlight in a fictional way to lead viewers to erroneous conclusions.

I'd love to hear other people's examples of images in these categories (or examples that disrupt them!) in the comments below!

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