One More Thought Experiment

Werner Sun/ Inspired by what Dan and Suzanne said about the boundaries of sci-art:

We have been focusing on science-based art, but it might be interesting to consider the implications of the converse — art-based science — by which I mean the study of art objects using scientific techniques. There are many examples: violin makers systematically quantify how violins produce their distinctive sound (also this), physicists have deduced what Jackson Pollock knew about paint, and at the lab where I work, x-rays have revealed hidden layers in a Picasso painting. Some artists are uncomfortable with such work because they feel this reductionist approach diminishes the human element and dispels the mystery in art. I wonder why it has to be either-or. Why can’t have it both ways?

In physics, we often study phenomena that admit multiple (sometimes mutually exclusive) descriptions — light is both wave and particle. … Continue reading

Sci-Art Fictions

Werner Sun/ Leonardo da Vinci is often cited as the original sci-artist and a paragon to be emulated because of his mastery of both art and science. But I wonder if Leonardo is a false idol, given how much both fields have evolved since his time. Science in the 1400’s was a far more speculative affair than it is today, not having been exposed to the instruments or mathematics or Enlightenment ethos that solidified its current cultural authority. And I suspect that most artists in the 1400’s viewed their craft in a utilitarian manner and not as the vehicle for transcendence that so many of us insist upon. In other words, the idealized art/science unity in the Renaissance may simply be a romantic myth that has little bearing on art and science as they are now. Perhaps today’s art and science were never meant to be as one.

Having made … Continue reading

Response to Jeanne: One Scientist’s Perspective

Werner Sun/ I would like to echo what Jeanne posted earlier.

Speaking as a scientist, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in my own appreciation of sci-art is not knowing how I am supposed to react to the scientific content. Scientific ideas are often very difficult to explain to laypersons and even other scientists. But for practitioners, every scientific idea holds a specific meaning, and it plays a particular role in the development of a field. The same is true of instruments, data, equations, etc. Every component is a brick in a Jenga tower.

So, when I see scientific material appearing verbatim in a piece of art, without an accompanying sense of exploration or transformation, my gut reaction is that the science is being taken out of context. A Jenga brick has been randomly plucked from the tower, and the edifice of thought surrounding it is being ignored. As … Continue reading

Response to Stephen: Science Museum vs. Art Gallery, and other stuff . . .

Werner Sun/ Stephen, “sci-art” as a way-finding sign is such a refreshing way of approaching the term. It does shift one’s perspective when thought of that way. I am reminded of the “shut up and calculate” approach to physics, which has certainly had its successes.

I suppose I am ambivalent about the term “sci-art” because it tends to color my interaction with any given work. It feels as if a certain lens has been placed in front of my eyes. Perhaps that is my problem and not yours.

And thank you for sharing your videos with us. Congratulations on such a sensitively curated exhibition! Incidentally, I was member of the CMS collaboration at the time of the Higgs boson discovery, and I am still involved in CMS research.

Regarding the display of scientific artifacts in an art gallery or art in a scientific setting, I have no problem with this

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Session 1 Still Lives! (Response to Elaine)

Werner Sun/ First of all: Elaine, many thanks for bringing a fresh perspective to this conversation! I very much enjoyed your talk on Saturday. I wanted to react to the comments in your post and also synthesize a few threads from elsewhere in Session I.

I wholeheartedly agree that the scientific method in practice is much messier than the way it is taught in schools. I made a similar point in one of my earlier comments. When I said that science is a way of thinking, I was referring to scientists’ underlying attitudes and worldviews, not any specific procedure for doing science.

Similarly, returning to a previous thread, the “core concerns” that I suggested we should unpack also reside on this fundamental level. Dan Weiskopf nicely characterized the practices of science. And Taney cited a definition of art from Sian Ede. But I’d also like to hear … Continue reading

Response to Stephen Nowlin’s Examples of Sci-Art

Werner Sun/ Responding to:

Stephen, thank you for your list of successful sci-art works (link above). Each of them is unique and wonderful, and they certainly incorporate scientific ideas in surprising ways. But what’s interesting is that, if I had encountered any one on its own, I would probably not have identified it as sci-art per se (except the Jim Campbell, and only then because of its title). Even the Bela Tarr film, which makes the most explicit use of science, strikes me simply as superb filmmaking.

Why has the “sci-” prefix primarily been applied to visual art (your one musical example notwithstanding)? Why wouldn’t we refer to a poem about the solar eclipse as sci-poetry? [As a concrete example of science in poetry, I would offer James Richardson’s “Essay on Wood”.] A related question: how has sci-fi seemingly transcended its prefix?

I think a common thread in all … Continue reading

Semantic Sprawl

Werner Sun/

Thanks to everyone for all the posts so far and for such a stimulating discussion at the opening event on Saturday. There are so many interesting threads to pursue here. But for now, let me begin with a somewhat prosaic pet peeve of mine:

As was alluded to at the opening event and also in several posts here, one barrier to productive communication and collaboration between artists and scientists is the lack of a common language or vocabulary (as in any interdisciplinary endeavor). And this disconnect separates practitioners in either field from the general public as well. It seems to me that these misunderstandings go all the way back to the two words “art” and “science” themselves.

For example, in popular parlance, it is not uncommon to come across phrases like “the science of frying eggs” or “what science tells us about climate change” or “with all the … Continue reading