The Art of Science

by Alan Saltiel, Ph.D.
Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute

Attainment and science, retainment and art — the two couples keep to themselves, but when they do meet, nothing else in the world matters.
Vladimir Nabokov


What does it mean when we say someone is a brilliant scientist? Is it that they’re extremely knowledgeable in their sphere? That they have a deep and thorough understanding of a discipline or problem? That they generate new approaches or innovations? That they produce impactful work that gets published in top journals?

All of these are certainly crucial ingredients that define brilliance, but as Nabokov noted, there is more. Truly brilliant scientists are people who look at problems from a different perspective than everyone else, who see more deeply into systems and relationships, who question everything including their own assumptions, who bring disparate elements into new conversation.  In other words, truly brilliant scientists attain and retain, blending the rudiments of science and art. 

Art and science have always gone hand-in-hand. Since our ancestors first painted animals on cave walls, the natural world has served as an inspiration for art. Things are no different today, even as our world has expanded to encompass far-flung galaxies and the microscopic building blocks of life — we are still finding artistic encouragement in the beauty and balance of our universe.

To give just one example, in his work as a structural biologist, the LSI’s Georgios Skiniotis uses cryo-EM to build a three-dimensional picture of biological machinery operating at the nano-scale. He was recently invited to curate an exhibition at the U-M Museum of Art to which he applied some of the same techniques he uses in his lab.

He photographed a variety of sculptures and manipulated the images to create new views, new perspectives on familiar objects — like dancing figures by Rodin. The exhibition connects his personal background and his scientific work.  He told UMMA Magazine: “My origins are in a place where the bright Mediterranean sun casts strong shadows on the lands below it. This is a place of high visual contrast, where every object, living and not, is locked in an eternal dance with its distorted dark projection on a wall, on a rock, even on the surface of the sea.”

The exhibit runs through July 19 and I would encourage everyone who hasn’t seen it yet to check it out.  It is awesome.  And while you’re at it, look around the LSI at all the beautiful art we’ve been collecting since we opened the doors of the Institute in 2003.  The works by David Mann, Patricia Olynyk, Beverly Fishman, Bernice Abbott and others evoke a world in which abstraction and representation live together, allowing the observer to see, feel or be inspired in a variety of ways. 

This fundamental connection between science and art is also what led us to jointly sponsor a three-year post-doctoral fellowship in Art/Science with the Stamps School of Art & Design. The first recipient of the fellowship, Lia Min, holds a joint undergraduate degree in biology and art from U-M as well as a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University.

Min is working on new project that sums up a number of inquiries represented in her previous work, including an exhibit titled Windows that is scheduled to be displayed in the LSI lobby in the near future. For her new project, she’s planning a series of sculptures based on neuroanatomical data.

"Over the course of my fellowship, I explored different ways of connecting the two disciplines ranging from scientific illustration to BioArt — and came to the conclusion that using my training in one field to serve the other would not work for me,” Min says. “Through my practice, I was able to discover that the underlying motivation for both my scientific and artistic pursuit has to do with sensory perception, and how personality and the notion of self originate from it."

But, as I alluded to above, there is another aspect of the science-art relationship that we don’t talk about as much — and that is when you strip away the technical language, the high-tech machines and the university bureaucracy, academic science is at its heart a creative act. Think about the flash of insight that occurred when Francis Crick and Jim Watson divined the double helix structure of DNA.

I have seen this creative spirit at work in the LSI’s faculty and students who are always searching for new points of collaboration, discussing new ways of looking at well-trod ground, and taking risks that push beyond the established boundaries of our understanding. Light has always been a metaphor for knowledge, and I find the image of a campfire in a darkened wood particularly apt — the higher you bank the fires and the more light you shed, the larger the circumference of the surrounding darkness grows. The more questions we answer, the more we understand the true nature of our ignorance.

In the end, both art and science are a response to the mysteries that surround us, to vital questions about ourselves and our world. They are each a lens that not only allow us to understand the world in new ways, but also ourselves.  As Nabokov said, when they meet, nothing else in the world matters.

This article was published in the June 2015 edition of the Explore LSI newsletter.