Nov 17, 2011

Visualizing science

The fascination of complexity is one big force that drives curiosity. It appears that the mind is getting utterly excited when a sensoric impression is neither completely predictable, symmetric or repetitive nor random. Pure symmetry and repeated patterns might sooth the aching brain - but boredom is not far away. Complete randomness, on the other hand, is quickly masked as 'background' or noise, unable to keep our attention for too long - equally rapidly discarded from our attention-span. It is the broken symmetry on the one side (the nearly perfect crystal-structure, the flaw in a symmetric image, the spot in a beautiful face...) and the structured randomness (seemingly repetitive patterns in the noise, almost symmetrical structures in an otherwise random system) that catches the attention of artists and scientists alike.
Both, it appears, are looking for tools or 'languages' to extend the space of what is describable, in this sense understandable, and to build something like 'safe terrain' to walk on in the humming chaos. While the arts are clearly more free in what languages they chose or devise, the comprehension-expanding but rather strict languages of science (as incomprehensible as they may appear to the untrained observer) make them less ambiguous and the insights conveyable to more.
Creativity acts in both worlds, but the ironclad rules of the scientific grammar (mathematics in most cases) allow for a less ambiguous communication of new-found understanding between those speaking the language than the arts could ever achieve within their babylonian conversation. Art often appears to indulge in the quest for new forms of expression - therefore new grammars - to the gain of creativity and expressive richness, but at the expense of comprehendability and generality.
The science-artist Tim Otto Roth is one of the most active figures in the quest for the visualization of the scientific world. At the American Museum of Natural History in the very heart of NYC he just opened a show of his recent mapping from the language of science to the poetry of art. The untrained observer - speaking neither in the tongues of science nor arts - feels the vegetative reaction of his organism to the brain's struggle for comprehension and the search for structure - something that would be impossible for the public without the artistic transliteration. Tim Otto Roth by this means opens an emotional door to the sciences that is usually rather tightly shut. He takes the complementary approach to Pythagoras, who described cosmic principles with musical analogues. Roth uses the complex harmonics of nature to compose his dynamic art. As Martin Kemp put it in a review of another installation of Roth's "we stand as witnesses to the chaotic drumbeats of cosmic radiation."

1 comment:

S.R. said...

Hi Carsten,

I very much like your sharp-witted sketch.

On your thoughts on the nature of human perception in science and arts, I think it's not a matter of these fields of communication or activity. The pattern of the "special unusual within the general usual", or: "the deviant coming to the foreground out of the order or norm(ality) of the background" may even be universal for human perception, stimuli selection, and relevance attribution. May it be in arts, science, everyday talk, politics, or journalism.

It was exactly journalism suggesting this to me. Besides journalists' political commitments or "biases", amongst others, there is a central paradigm driving coverage: How journalists select events for publication depends on professional norms, more or less worldwide. These rules - "news factors" - determine the "news value" of an event (or of a press release etc.), i.e. the newsworthiness in professional eyes. News factors are Damage/Conflict ("Only bad news are good news"), Surprise, Simplicity, Prominence, Elite-Nation, Relevance, Nearness etc. (s. Lippmann's "Public Opinion" 1922; Galtung/Ruge 1965; Eilders 1997 - also on evolutionary, social, and other foundations of factors).

My major point is: These news factors comprise the perception mechanism you defined, which can be described as a combination of Surprise and/or Curiosity with Expectedness and/or Continuity. The relation according to Galtung (the famous conflict researcher, SIPRI) and Ruge: News value is enhanced by the new, surprising, unexpected, the deviation, the curious event WITHIN the expected, the known context, best as part of an already known topic (Continuity).

So the structure you defined seems to be valid not only in science and arts, but also - internationally - in journalism. Additionally, there's empirical evidence that at least some news factors not only imply what journalists consider "important" or "interesting" - they also imply what the audience, the public perceives as such - a further hint in favour of universality. It might be interesting to try to translate other news factors into science and (much more difficult) into arts, to add to the discussed perception structure - which surely is not the only pattern.

Just in short:

- I once took part in a FU seminar on the history of (literature) aesthetics. Focusing on the central creative role of imagination, Ein{bildung}skraft, in the artistic/writing process, we also dealt with other factors like ratio, Vernunft, emotion - and theorists' thoughts on their interplay constituting an artwork (theorists comprised very interesting Friedrich Schiller or Freud's "Der Dichter und das Phantasieren").
According to my personal experience, I also like what Umberto Eco's theory emphasises: the necessity of ambivalence, ambiguity, openness, gaps or free spaces in a work of art, again to activate recipients' imagination - and a second process of creation.

- on Roth: It's a beautiful work. However, my reception brought me no *science-related* knowledge, insight, impression, or emotion of any kind, but a really atmospheric, somehow mysterious, warm, and autumnly feeling. That a recipient feels by this will surely take place, but he/she will hardly retrace this to the science behind, may it be emotionally or intellectually. That's also because of the very short explanation given, which could be a link between the visual experience and the "hidden science". There are too few science-related "holds" for my imagination in the artwork to "climb into a science direction". So in my view, Roth takes "science material" as a form of aesthetic inspiration, and transforms it into a beautiful, whole new creation, an artwork in its own right, but a "visualization of science" leaving science behind.