Friday, June 30, 2017

The Art of Exoplanets

"...Hurt and Pyle, who render vibrant visualizations based on data from Spitzer and other missions, are hybrids of sorts, blending expertise in both science and art. From squiggles on charts and columns of numbers, they conjure red, blue and green worlds, with half-frozen oceans or bubbling lava...Visualizations based on data can also inform science, leading to genuine scientific insights...For Hurt, the real goal of scientific illustration is to excite the public, engage them in the science, and provide a snapshot of scientific knowledge."
"We kind of cover each other's blind spots a bit"
" is as much a historical record of our changing understanding of the universe as the textbooks we write." -- Robert Hurt, IPAC Center
Read article here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Science Needs Story

A recent article in Medium has some good advice:
"Scientists need to tell their stories — stories about why they became scientists and what science has done and is doing for humanity. Remember, science is an abstract, intellectual process for most people. It is very hard for people to gain an emotional connection to science. That’s what narrative is for."
"Top GOP messaging strategist Frank Luntz gave this advice in his infamous 2002 memo to conservatives and team Bush about how to pretend you care about the climate while opposing serious action: 'A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.' ...scientists have been trained to depersonalize their speeches, to speak literally, not figuratively. As a result, it has been easy for the Luntz-Trump crowd to create stories in which scientists are the villains."
The article recommends this book for advice on crafting stories: Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, by marine biologist turned filmmaker, Randy Olson:
"Olson first diagnoses the problem: When scientists tell us about their work, they pile one moment and one detail atop another moment and another detail—a stultifying procession of “and, and, and.” What we need instead is an understanding of the basic elements of story, the narrative structures that our brains are all but hardwired to look for—which Olson boils down, brilliantly, to “And, But, Therefore,” or ABT. At a stroke, the ABT approach introduces momentum (“And”), conflict (“But”), and resolution (“Therefore”)—the fundamental building blocks of story."

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge

"While replicable fact is the domain of science, human perception and value are the domains of art and the humanities."

This New Republic article from 2012 is an excellent rebuttal to the "scientism," of those who argue that the arts and humanities are somehow less reliable and useful than science:
If Marx and Freud are favorite whipping boys for those worried about the [validity of the humanities], the compliment is readily returned...nineteenth-century physics and chemistry [were infested] with the proliferation of “ether theories.” No less a figure than Maxwell even characterized the ether as “the best confirmed entity in [science].
Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection...culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.
But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone...Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation.
What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments. In their turn, new discoveries modify the landscape in which further investigations will take place, and because what we learn affects how evidence is assessed, discovery shapes the evolution of our standards of evidence. Judgments of value thus pervade the environment in which scientific work is done. If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.
Healthy relationships between the sciences and the humanities should aspire to the condition of the best marriages—to a partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated, in which a fruitful division of labor constantly evolves, in which constructive criticism is given and received, in which neither party can ever make a plausible claim to absolute authority, and in which the ultimate goal is nothing less than the furtherance of the human good. 
 Read the complete article here.

On Sustainability and Art: artist Hannalie Coetzee

Fire-created artwork.
ART AFRICA looks at the practice of artist Hannelie Coetzee. "Hannelie Coetzee’s artwork draws attention to our warped relationship with nature through pragmatic, solution oriented interventions."

The article also includes highlights of a fascinating discussion between the artist's associates and collaborators.

Some interesting quotes from the article:
The more intuitive approach of artists can provide a window into the complex models, calculations and simulations of the scientific world… Natural world issues require more than just a technical fix. They require systems of thinking and creativity to imagine and illustrate the best possible solutions. -- Prof. Caroline Digby from the Wits Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry
Sustainability is not primarily a scientific problem; rather, it requires us as citizens, communities and societies to rethink the way in which we live our personal lives… This requires engaging the hearts, minds and imaginations of a wide set of people across many different spheres of society. Artists have a particularly important role to play in this regard – not only in creating a space that can help bridge and connect between different actors, but in contributing and opening our minds to completely new ways of seeing the world and our place in it. -- Dr. Reinette Biggs of the Stockholm Resilience Institute and the University of Stellenbosch
How can art and science integrate into a discipline or collaboration that aids transformative understanding?

Art is the expression of creative ideas that are likely informed by prior knowledge but not restricted by natural, economic or social rules. Science is a knowledge that we have built through methodical enquiry over many generations into how nature, economics and society work. When art is introduced into science, it gives permission to seek different ways of addressing the same problem. It enables one to leapfrog or do a U-turn. As stated in New Roles for Art Are Clarified (Carney 2010), Tim Collins declares that, “while replicable fact is the domain of science, human perception and value are the domains of art and the humanities. – Philipp Kirsch, University of Queensland

How do such partnerships reach wider audiences?

I have been astounded by how much easier it is to interest people in the science when it is encompassed in an artwork. Before, I was only talking to the small community of people who were already thinking about these issues. People like the art – and they like the idea that the art has some scientifc substance behind it. Some, not all of them, want to know more details about our science questions and I am challenged to maintain their interest and expand it. – Sally Archibald, WITS
How can partnerships between artists and scientists contribute to resilient systems and change?

The data on climate change is indisputable, but how does one develop an emotional appreciation of the potential consequences? I think this must come through experience and art is a fantastic mechanism to develop emotional experiences and consider possibilities. – Caroline Lehmann, Biogeography, University of Edinburgh

How has an artist’s work influenced your work and vice versa?

Hannelie sometimes brings aspects that I think of as ‘outside’ the system, into the discussion. At its simplest, ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms and their environment and it is refreshing to have a different take on the shape and form of these interactions. – Sally Archibald

I started to write a conference paper about the potential to re-imagine mining overburden as a building material. To change the way that the industry framed everything as waste rock, waste dumps, waste piles etc. In researching this, I uncovered the genre of Land Art. These artists have given considerable thought to moving earth to make art. I strongly believe in the potential for artists to create not just new mine closure landscapes, but to also drive improved community relations when working side-by-side with the engineers and financial managers in mine planning and operations. – Phillip Kirsch

Read complete article here.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Field Notes of a Terranaut

Artist Alan MacDonald was inspired by the notebooks of DaVinci and Michelangelo to create his recent work, Field Notes of a Terranaut. MacDonald has some lucid ideas about the creative process:
"Our senses filter out vast amounts of information unessential for survival of the body-organism. Yet still, a trickle of information enters the mind experienced as intuition, a creative spark. Aha moments. Truly creative artists are in a sense mystics, 'receiving' non local information in order to co-create local objects that inspire and extend consciousness."
I would argue that this statement applies to truly creative scientists, as well: they notice things that the rest of us filter out. Perhaps we lack a term for the truly creative perception that distinguishes transformative art and science from the merely pedestrian?

Codex Gunnison

Codex Gunnison is an art project that explores a poorly studied natural phenomenon in the Gunnison arm of the Great Salt Lake, UT. This bay is the saltiest water body on earth, yet it still manages to host life: a peculiar, salt-loving microbe that colors the bay's water pink and creates rock-like forms on the ground.
"Codex Gunnison is a mediative engagement with a unique and understudied ecological condition. It is also an effort to reimagine artistic practice as a speculative and vibrantly humanistic material science capable of interacting with and enriching conventional modes of objective inquiry. It does so by reframing representation as a process of critical engagement with the methodological frameworks employed by scientists with the artist manipulating the scope, aims, and outcomes of formal research."
Isn't this just a perhaps overly post-structural way of describing Natural History?

If so, it's nice to get back to that effort, which combined passion and close observation to gain understanding of natural phenomena before there was a structured practice of science to do that. Natural History combined artistic and analytical thinking and skills in a powerful way that has to some extent been lost in the process of science becoming more technical and fragmented.

These Nine Artists Will Help You Understand the Future of the Planet

Smithsonian curator Joanna Marsh highlights 9 contemporary artists whose practices are conscious-raising and problem-solving. Here are some quotes from the full article:
"Part of the reason that there is a lot of public inaction around climate change and environmental issues more broadly is because the science isn't communicated in an accessible way that triggers emotional responses and curiosity on the part of the public." -- Joanna Marsh
"I frankly believe we’re at a moment where we have some really big problems and we need as many minds that can come together from as many different perspectives as possible to address these issues because we’re not going to resolve them just within one field of study." -- Krista Caballero
"One of the challenges of our time is that people feel disconnected from – perhaps even insensitive to – the world’s great problems. We do not see ourselves as agents in a global society. Climate change, poverty, war, and illness are all challenges that vie for our attention. The overwhelming avalanche of information in society today, coupled with the PR efforts aimed directly at us, as individuals, have resulted in many of us accepting that something has to be done. Yet there is a huge gap between what we know and what we feel. How can we translate knowledge into action, and really change our behavior? Of course, it is necessary to present the facts and data supporting climate change science, but this is not where action begins. Only by embodying knowledge can we gain a sense of responsibility and commitment." -- Olafur Eliasson