Science in Art

4th August 2014

Space debris orbiting Earth.

Image credit: Space Debris by Jihye Jung and Amber Choi, from Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

Scientists often utilise the same tools as artists to record or illustrate their ideas. They may create computer-generated images to use in academic papers, animations to show during presentations, or models to educate the public, and scientific organisations and agencies often employ artists to do this for them. In these cases, the main aim is to increase our scientific knowledge in an accurate and unbiased manner.

Artists, however, do not have to disregard their bias in their own work, and so can use art to evoke emotional responses to scientific ideas, forcing us to consider how we feel about them. I will look at some examples of art that does this below.

1. A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun and An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, c1766 and 1768.

The Orrery by Joseph Wright.

The Orrery by Joseph Wright. Image credit: Joseph Wright/Public domain.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright. Image credit: Joseph Wright/Public domain.

An Orrery is a mechanical model of the Solar System, which can be used to illustrate the movements of the planets and moons. A lamp can be placed at the centre in order to represent the Sun and show the effects of eclipses. Such a demonstration is shown in A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun (also known as 'The Orrery') by Joseph Wright of Derby, which was completed in about 1766.

On one level, this shows a realistic situation depicted accurately, and could be used to show people what this demonstration would look like, but it also shows something else. It was somewhat controversial at the time as it's painted in a similar style to paintings depicting classical or religious events, like those shown below. This suggested that, in this time-period, shortly after the Enlightenment, science could be just as awe-inspiring.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stom.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stom, c1635-1640. Image credit: Matthias Stom/Public domain.

The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio.

The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, 1601. Image credit: Caravaggio/Public domain.

Although there were practical reasons why The Orrery should be lit in such a way, there seems no reason why an experiment with a vacuum pump should be performed by candle light, yet that is how Wright depicted it in An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, in 1768. Wright shows an experiment, which was often performed in public at the time, that demonstrates how a vacuum pump works by placing a bird in a chamber and pumping all of the air out. In An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, the emotional responses of the participants are much more varied than in The Orrery.

2. The Persistence of Memory and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931 and 1952-54.

The Persistence of Memory, created by Salvador Dali in 1931, can be interpreted as showing the relative nature of time during sleep, and was inspired by psychology. Dali recreated this painting as The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory in the 1950s, this time inspired by quantum mechanics and its relation to nuclear physics and the atomic bomb.

In the late 1950s, Dali wrote:

"In the surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world - the world of the marvellous, of my father Freud. I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world - that of physics - has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr Heisenberg"[1].

Like An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory shows both the awe and terror that comes with scientific revolutions. In The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the landscape shown in The Persistence of Memory has been flooded with water, and there is now a fish present, which Dali sometimes used to represent life.

The face depicted in The Persistence of Memory now appears less solid and more transparent, and the fish's scales are reflected from the face's skin. Some solid objects are now broken into many smaller objects that are not touching, representing quantised atoms. The horn-like shapes behind them depict atoms in motion, perhaps representing atomic missiles, and the ocean's surface is peeled back, as if there is no real distinction between the sea and the sky.

3. Quantum Cloud and You and Nothing by Antony Gormley, 1999-2009, and 2006.

Quantum Cloud by Antony Gormley.

Quantum Cloud by Antony Gormley. Image credit: Andy Roberts/CC-A.

Sculptures in the Quantum Cloud and You and Nothing series' by Antony Gormley depict the quantum view of the world previously explored by Dali.

Gormley shows how quantum mechanics relates to everyone by making the subject a human body. His sculptures then directly show how we recognise structure among randomness, since everyone can recognise the bodies despite the fact that they are not solid, and there is nothing separating them from the material that surrounds them. This represents what our bodies are like on a subatomic - quantum - level, and forces us to think about how this relates to us.

Gormley described how in the Quantum Cloud series:

"the classical position of sculpture as an absolute object placed in space has been replaced by constructing a provisional energy field in space".

"[This is] perhaps a better way to deal with the body, which is more contemporary and closer to post-particle physics of David Bohm, Heisenberg and Niels Bohr"[2].

4. Power Plant II and The Flowers of Diabetes by Odra Noel,
    c2014.

Power Plant II by Odra Noel.

Power Plant II by Odra Noel.
Image credit: Odra Noel/Copyrighted, used with permission.

Flowers of Diabetes by Odra Noel.

The Flowers of Diabetes by Odra Noel.
Image credit: Odra Noel/Copyrighted, used with permission.

Power Plant II is from Odra Noel's Plants, algae and viruses series and The Flowers of Diabetes is from her Human tissues series, both found at http://odranoel.eu. The former depicts a microscopic image of a spinach leaf cell, showing chloroplasts - which conduct photosynthesis - in green, and mitochondria - which conduct cellular respiration - in yellow and orange.

The Flowers of Diabetes shows the cells in the pancreas that produce the enzymes we use to digest food, and the bicarbonate we use to neutralise stomach acid. These are called acinar cells. These images are fairly accurate, as you can see when you compare them to diagrams of a leaf cell and of acinar tissue.

Diagram of acinar tissue.

Acinar tissue. Image credit: Henry Gray/Public domain.

Noel's pieces are unlike the diagrams, however, because Noel has used style and colour in her imagery to convey a positive emotional response, associated with the fact that she is depicting something living.

Noel describes Power Plant II as:

"a happy image. It somehow shows a bit of the sun that is being harvested to create energy and life. It has great spring colours and very good fun is somehow inserted into the playful internal membranes of the mitochondria"[3].

5. Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell by Emiko Paul and Quade Paul, Echo Medical Media; Ron Gamble, and UAB Insight, 2011.

Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell by Emiko Paul and Quade Paul.

Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell by Emiko Paul and Quade Paul. Image credit: Emiko Paul and Quade Paul, Echo Medical Media; Ron Gamble, and UAB Insight, 2011/Copyrighted, used with permission.

Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell, which was shortlisted for the National Science Foundation's Visualisation Awards in 2011, shows a breast cancer cell in the centre right and TRA-8, an antibody developed to inhibit tumour growth, on the left, in green.

Like Power Plant II and The Flowers of Diabetes, Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell is fairly accurate. This can be seen by comparing it to images of breast cancer cells taken with electron microscopes.

Photograph of a breast cancer cell created using an electron microscope.

Breast cancer cell. Image credit: National Cancer Institute/Public domain.

Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell trades some accuracy in order to evoke an emotional response, also like Power Plant II and The Flowers of Diabetes, however the emotional response evoked here is negative. The cancer cell is depicted in a similar way to H. P. Lovecraft's monsters or those found in B movies, suggesting both hope and terror.

6. Animating Fermi, various artists, 2014.

Animating Fermi- MICA Advanced 2D animation class from Laurence Arcadias on Vimeo.

Animating Fermi consists of five short films created by students from the animation department of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, chaired by Laurence Arcadias, in collaboration with scientists associated with NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Fermi is a space telescope designed to observe the most energetic light in the universe.

Each of the five films looks at a different scientific idea inspired by the Fermi telescope. Like Power Plant II, The Flowers of Diabetes, and Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell, the films in Animating Fermi trade some scientific accuracy in order to evoke emotional responses.

In the first film, Hungry Black Hole; How a black hole creates a FERMI Bubble, Sydney Citrone and Isaac Ewart show a black hole creating bubbles of gamma rays, known as Fermi bubbles. These were discovered emanating from the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy using data from Fermi in 2010[4].

Animation of an anthropomorphised black hole creating a FERMI Bubble.

From Hungry Black Hole; How a black hole creates a FERMI Bubble, Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

Artist’s impression of FERMI bubbles emanating from the centre of the Milky Way.

An illustration of gamma ray bubbles, also known as FERMI bubbles, in the Milky Way. Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Public domain.

The second film, Dark Matter by LeJea Williams, Nicky St. Onge, Natasha Nayo, and Tynesha Foreman, explains how our understanding of dark matter has changed over time. Dark matter is now thought to mostly be composed of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPS), which may produce gamma rays when they interact, and so could be detected by Fermi. A possible detection was made in April 2014[5].

Animation of the two possible sources of dark matter - massive astrophysical compact halo objects (MACHOs) and weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), both are anthropomorphised.

From Dark Matter, Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

Animation of anthropomorphised binary stars.

From Binary Stars, Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

The third film, Binary Stars, is by Sarah Bushin, Jordan Jackson, Tara Saldajeno, Marc de Leon, and Shari Pryce, with music by Andrew Boudreau. It shows a binary star system known as a microquasar.

Microquasars are composed of a compact object, either a neutron star or a black hole, and a companion star. Matter from the companion star falls on the compact star, depicted in blue. This causes a disc of matter to form around it, and jets of matter to be emitted from its poles. Microquasars emit electromagnetic radiation in a wide range of wavelengths, including gamma rays. Fermi detected gamma rays from microquasar Cygnus X-3 in 2009[6].

The fourth film is titled Case of the Cosmic Rays, and was created by Lisa Deng, with music by Podington Bear. This shows the discovery of cosmic rays by Austrian-American physicist Victor Hess in 1912[7]. Cosmic rays are the name given to extremely high-energy radiation, which was discovered at the turn of the 19th century.

In 1909, German physicist Theodor Wulf showed that there were higher levels of this radiation at the top of the Eiffel Tower than at the bottom, and so Hess set out to see if it came from space. He did this by taking his equipment as high up as he could in a balloon, over 5 km above the ground, and measuring the radiation levels. Hess did this multiple times, during the day and at night, and showed that the radiation rapidly increases about 1 km above the ground[8]. Hess was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery in 1936.

We now know that cosmic radiation can be composed of particles travelling close to the speed of light, as well as electromagnetic radiation[9]. Cosmic rays can also have different origins, with some originating from beyond the Milky Way[10]. We still don't know what causes much of this radiation, and scientists are using Fermi to try to find out. Last year they showed that some cosmic rays come from supernova remnants[11].

Animation showing Victor Hess discovering cosmic rays in a hot-air balloon.

From Case of the Cosmic Rays, Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

Animation of space debris building up until the Earth is no longer visible.

From Space Debris, Animating Fermi/CC-NC-ND.

The final film, Space Debris by Jihye Jung and Amber Choi, shows the different types of space debris that orbit the Earth. Space debris' are composed of any type of manufactured object that no longer serves a purpose. There are over 100 million different manufactured objects in space, with over 20,000 objects over 10 cm in size[12].

Artist’s impression showing actual number of space debris orbiting Earth.

Objects within the first 20,000 km of the Earth. Image credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office/Public domain.

There are so many manufactured objects in orbit that collisions can occur, and so space debris' are tracked by NASA. In 2012, Fermi came close to a collision with a defunct Soviet spy satellite, Cosmos 1805[13]. If they had collided, then the explosion would have destroyed both satellites, and so NASA had to move Fermi out of the way by firing thrusters, which were originally designed to take it out of orbit when it is no longer in use.

7. A Tintinnabulation of Cosmic Scintillation by Suzie Shrubb, 2010.

In A Tintinnabulation of Cosmic Scintillation, composer Suzie Shrubb allows us to experience what the star cluster 47 Tucanae would sound like if we could hear it through a radio. If we could do this, then the sound would be dominated by its multiple pulsars[14].

Pulsars are neutron stars that emit beams of electromagnetic radiation from their poles. These periodically travel past our line of sight as they rotate, like beams of light from a lighthouse. Many pulsars emit radio waves that can be made audible, in the same way that radios convert human-made radio waves into sound. Although the signals from pulsars in the 47 Tucanae cluster are too weak for us to hear using current radio telescopes, we can work out what they would sound like based on how fast they spin, where faster pulsars are higher pitched.

The sounds of individual pulsars emitting radio waves can be heard here, with simulated sounds representing the pulsars in the 47 Tucanae cluster at the bottom of the page. This is very similar to Shrubb's piece, since both strive for accuracy, but it's impossible to know exactly what the 47 Tucanae cluster would sound like if we had the ability to hear it.

This is because the radio waves that the pulsars emit are distorted by the dust and gas they travel through on their way to Earth, in a way that's impossible for us to predict. This process is known as scintillation - the same process that causes stars to 'twinkle' - and so this adds a random element to both pieces[15].

Shrubb's A Tintinnabulation of Cosmic Scintillation is similar to Power Plant II, The Flowers of Diabetes, Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell, and Animating Fermi, since they all strive for accuracy. Shrubb's piece is unlike them, however, as it does not intentionally trade accuracy in order to evoke an emotive response, letting the piece speak for itself.

8. Galaxy Song by Monty Python, 1983.

Galaxy Song was composed by Eric Idle and John Du Prez, and first appeared in the film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in 1983. It relates astronomical facts directly to the listener by asking them to contemplate their place within the universe.

The message is similar to that of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, but the style in Galaxy Song is very different, suggesting that the correct response to this information is to laugh at the absurdity of it all, a view also explored by Douglas Adams.

9. References

  1. Dalí, S., 1958, Anti-Matter Manifesto, Carstairs Gallery, New York, December 1958 – January 1959, quoted in 'Dalí and Science', National Gallery of Victoria, last accessed 15-02-16.

  2. Gormley, A., 2008, 'Interview with Pierre Tillet', pp.9.

  3. Noel, O, 'Power Plant II', last accessed 15-02-16.

  4. NASA, 'NASA's Fermi Telescope Finds Giant Structure in our Galaxy', last accessed 15-02-16.

  5. NASA, 'Fermi Data Tantalize With New Clues To Dark Matter', last accessed 15-02-16.

  6. NASA, 'Fermi Telescope Peers Deep into Microquasar', last accessed 15-02-16.

  7. Hess, V. F., 1912, 'Penetrating Radiation in Seven Free Ballon Flights', Z. Phys., 13, pp.1084.

  8. Wulf, T., 1910, 'Beobachtungen über die Strahlung hoher Durchdringungsfähigkeit auf dem Ei elturm' ('About the radiation of high penetration capacity contained in the atmosphere'), Physikalische Zeitschrschift, 11, pp.811.

  9. NASA, 'Cosmic Rays', last accessed 15-02-16.

  10. Brecher, K. and Burbidge, G. R., 1972, 'Extragalactic cosmic rays', Astrophysical Journal, 174, pp.253.

  11. NASA, 'NASA's Fermi Proves Supernova Remnants Produce Cosmic Rays', last accessed 15-02-16.

  12. NASA, 'Space Debris and Human Spacecraft', last accessed 15-02-16.

  13. NASA, 'The Day NASA's Fermi Dodged a 1.5-ton Bullet', last accessed 15-02-16.

  14. McConnell, D., Deshpande, A. A., Connors, T., and Ables, J. G., 2004, 'The radio luminosity distribution of pulsars in 47 Tucanae', Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 348, pp.1409-1414.

  15. Graham-Smith, F., 2013, 'Unseen Cosmos: The Universe in Radio', OUP Oxford.

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