Friday, October 18, 2013

'Research as Art 2013' at The Royal Institution

Blood Cells - Nafiseh Badiei
Put yourself in the shoes of a particle physicist.  You've discovered something genuinely new, something that changes the way we perceive the universe and you want people to know about it.  How do you communicate incredibly complex ideas to the general public? Go too technical and you'll watch eyes glaze over, dumb it down and you risk losing a clear definition of what you've discovered.  Research as Art, an annual competition by Swansea University, aims to encourage scientists to examine their work with an artist's eye, to take abstract theory and translate it into a striking image that instils in the viewer a taste of the marvel of cutting-edge scientific progress.

The entries and winners of the 2013 competition are currently being displayed at the Royal Institution, so I popped along to have a look.  The exhibition is down in the Atrium, right next to a recreation of Faraday's lab.  There's two 'model' labs set up across from one another, one modern and one purporting to be a recreation of Faraday's actual laboratory.  Rather unfortunately the Atrium area is totally bathed in hot purple light, rendering everything a rather unhealthy colour.  It was a bit like being trapped in a mid 2000s series of Big Brother but the main downside is that when you're trying to view some art, having everything drenched in glowing purple isn't ideal.

Still, lighting annoyances aside this is a very nice display.  Refreshingly, the best pictures aren't simply judged by which is the most aesthetically pleasing, but in how well they communicate the complex science behind them.  As a result, particular attention is paid to the text accompanying the images.

Matt Carnie - Graveyard of Ambition
One of my favourites, and winner of the 'Early Career Researcher Award' was Matt Carnie's Graveyard of Ambition.  The photo shows rows of defective lead halide perovskite solar cells, arranged to make them look like a graveyard.  Carnie explained that the inspiration for the piece came from an apocryphal description of Swansea by Dylan Thomas as the "graveyard of ambition".  These rejected cells, plucked from what the artist has named "the bin of bastards" serve to remind us that every scientific triumph is built on foundations of failure.  Things not going the way you planned aren't necessarily a bad thing, if you can glean useful data on why and how something fails you can use it to inform later successes.  When it comes to research and experimentation, all that the general public usually gets exposed to are the glittering triumphs, so this graveyard is a salient reminder of the effort, time and sacrifices you need to make in order to advance science.

Ed Bennett - Finding Needles in Four-Dimensional Haystacks
I also enjoyed Ed Bennett's Finding Needles in Four-Dimensional Haystacks.  I'm not even going to try and pretend I understand this stuff, so I'll quote directly from Bennett's description: "Each cube represents the same moment in time, of a space 100,000 smaller than an atom, in a theory describing interactions of elementary particles.  Like all space is it filled with objects known as instantons, which describe the properties of some of the interactions.  The problem with observing instantons is that they are obscured by noise - much like needles in a haystack.  Cooling the system, seen as we move down the columns, allows us to find the instantons - akin to carefully removing the hay strand by strand, leaving only the needles behind".  

The image created is a representation of a program designed to do this, showing us multiple points in time at once. These concepts and theories that Bennett are about as inaccessible as science gets, something hard to explain even to other scientists, let alone to the public - yet this is loaded with meaning, boiling down something all-but-unimaginable to a geometric, symmetrical beauty, with a complex chaos raging within.

Laura North and Mark Coleman - Project Surprise
The 'Overall Winner' of the competition is Laura North and Mark Coleman's Project Surprise.  It isn't the most stylish or tasteful image, but boy does it communicate a lot.  Through a simple cartoon strip format the image explains the process of X-Ray CT scanning, and 3D printer construction as a kind of magic trick, the example used to analyse a Kinder Egg and remove the toy from within without breaking the egg in any way.   It's the perfect example to illustrate a pretty complex scientific process, approaching the problem with humour and an optimistic poppy stylishness.

The science on display feels slightly frivolous and fun, a clever answer to a riddle.  Yet with even a moment's reflection you begin to think of myriad uses for technology like this.  North and Coleman explain that they've worked with the Egyptology department to identify and reproduce mummified snake remains, as well as medical applications like creating perfectly fitting joint replacements.

Three of the winners.  Apologies for the quality of the photograph, but I emphasise that this was a VERY purple room.
I don't think it's vital that the public have a total understanding of the latest in scientific trends, but they should at least have a vague knowledge of what underpins scientific and technological advances.  Ignorance and misinformation pile up, creating public health disasters like the Wakefield MMR controversy or simply feed into psychosomatic complexes like Morgellons or Electromagnetic Sensitivity.  The vast majority people have neither the time nor the inclination to spend their days wading through papers and literature aimed at professional eyes, so compelling, communicative images like these are the entry points by which everyone can become more knowledgeable.

Research as Art is at the Royal Institution Atrium until the 15th of November

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