NewScientist interview on Art and Science

From: Sabine Atkins (
Date: Sun Sep 30 2001 - 14:16:33 MDT

 Opinion - interview

Artistic licence 22 Sep 01

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is the last place you'd expect to find an artist-in-residence. Felice Frankel has held the position since 1994. She says it has more to do with science than art. Frankel uses photography to help researchers display their results. She claims that her images are more than aesthetic-they form part of the data. But not all the researchers are convinced. Eugenie Samuel asks her about her work, whether art and science can ever be married, and why she thinks science is streets ahead of modern art as a way of communicating the truth about the world.

Would you call yourself an artist?

If I had to call myself something then it would be a science photographer. I'm communicating ideas in science and documenting what's going on in the laboratory, so the pictures almost become part of the results. But there's another level to this. It's also about attracting people to the image.

Do you fear that scientists wouldn't take you seriously if you called yourself an artist?

I admit you are touching on something there. That is one of the things I had to acknowledge when I began this work. But there's another reason I don't call myself an artist: I simply do not relate to the contemporary art scene in any way. The art world is interested in personal statements. I am committed to communicating the beauty and ideas of science. It seems that my work is just too boring for the art world.

What do you think of exhibitions that purport to combine art and science?

They usually consist of simplistic ideas that the artist picked up somewhere in a textbook. They are incredibly shallow representations of gimmicky connections between art and science. Science is very complicated, but most people are intellectually lazy and want simple answers. Much of the work that researchers produce is very complicated and is more about "art" than anything you see in those exhibitions. Often the reason people are scientifically illiterate is because they feel intimidated by science. People are afraid to ask questions. They don't have the vocabulary and researchers don't help much. That's where my pictures come in-they can help engage the non-scientist to urge them to ask questions.

And do scientists take you seriously?

They do now. They come to me when they submit their papers for publication and need illustrations of their work. I am bombarded with researchers who want me to photograph their work. They have learned to trust me. That has taken some time. At first, they thought I was nuts. "Why is this woman bugging me to get better images of my science?" they'd ask. But that has changed. Now they embrace what I do. After all, I am helping them tell the rest of the world how wonderful their work is. The process works because I ask the right questions and I use a scientific vocabulary.

What are you hoping your pictures will do?

My hope is that people feel the pictures are so accessible that they will go on to find out something else about the science in them. Or that they will link them to something they already know, maybe something in their house, and perhaps make the connection that there are scientific phenomena all around us.

How much of the science are you allowed to compromise in order to make your pictures beautiful?

That's an important question and it all depends on the situation. There are fine lines. I remember sitting with somebody who wanted me to remove a piece of dust from an important part of a picture. I felt it wasn't right in this case because it would have suggested that he was impeccably patterning his cells on the surface of the substrate, which he wasn't. In another case, I photographed some gels that had separately absorbed three different fluorescent dyes-orange, blue and green. The film did not capture the orange wavelength, and those gels that should have appeared orange appeared green. So I digitally made them orange. To me this is more honest than what the other researcher wanted me to do because the scientists' preparation was correct and my intent is to communicate what was seen in the investigation.

So it's OK to change colours, but not content?

It's not that simple because sometimes colour equals content. Here's another example. I took a photograph of a yeast colony. It doesn't look like a yeast colony, but then what does a yeast colony look like? It looks more like a flower and it shows wonderful detail. It was growing in a Petri dish and I removed the dish because it looks more elegant that way. Gerry Fink, the researcher doing the work, likes the picture very much but he considers it art, whereas another picture with the Petri dish left in he considers documentary. He felt that while I wasn't misleading the viewer, I'd lost the sense of scale the Petri dish gave. But I maintain you can do that in the caption. The simpler the image, the more compelling it is. It is essential to indicate what you did to an image. Even when you change the contrast you are changing the data and we should know about that.

Are some scientists uncomfortable with acknowledging aesthetic beauty in their work because they think it detracts from the science?

Yes. They probably got that message from their training, and the great importance that is placed on conveying information accurately. But it is changing. I am convinced that most scientists became scientists because they were enthralled by the beauty of science. For some reason very few of them discuss that part. But just listen to their conversations and see the brilliance in their eyes when they talk about their work. It's as if they're talking about their lovers.

Are all the researchers at MIT receptive to what you do?

Most of the people who come to me are visual in the way they think and communicate. I have an immediate understanding with them. It's very difficult to talk people into using this kind of communication if they don't think in visual terms. It's one of my biggest problems. I haven't quite broken down the barriers with some people.

Do you think any other art medium can communicate science in the same way-or as effectively-as photography?

I am not sure how to define "art medium". If the word "art" implies some sort of interpretation by an artist, then you would need to be careful about defining the image as "science". I make images that communicate scientific phenomena. It is not about expressing myself. Computer graphics is a powerful means for communicating science but I am not sure you would consider it art.

Are you saying that there is no place in science for self-expression?

I suppose that if self-expression involves discovering things that bring us a sense of joy, and if finding out about the world gives us that joy, then by all means science has a place for self-expression.

What are the similarities between art and science? Are the two best kept separate?

If the artist delves, investigates, seeks answers and dissects things to their essence in the way a scientist does, then science and art are connected and the two cultures should mingle. They could have such interesting things to say to each other. But for today's so-called hot artists, delving for answers about anything other than their own selves seems to be of little interest. Chuck Close is an exception, as is Michael Singer. Now imagine if Vermeer were alive, or Caravaggio, or even Mondrian, and they attended a party with today's top optical physicists, what a party that would be. I'd want to be there. Artists used to be seekers after truth and they used their own medium to do that. Somebody like Leonardo da Vinci was one of the foremost intellectuals and scientists of his age, and his means of expression was art. Today, for me, science has stolen that mission from art, both as a means of seeking the truth and as the aesthetic sine qua non.

Do you always have to understand the science when you're making an image?

The only way I can be successful is to understand the researchers' ideas. I have the incredible luxury of being able to ask scientists any question I want. I don't understand their work as deeply as they do, of course, but enough to get the right information to communicate. I wouldn't photograph something that I didn't understand at all.

Do you have a science background?

I got a degree in biology and then worked in two academic laboratories for many years. Science has always been in my soul. I got married and we moved to western Massachusetts. I couldn't find a job, so I started volunteering as an architectural photographer. I loved working with space and documenting details. Then I was given a fellowship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

How did you get into science photography?

Well, that year at Harvard I took every science class I could get my hands on because I really missed science. One day about ten years ago I approached a scientist, George Whitesides, who was lecturing in molecular biology and who seemed to be very visual in his presentations. His group was submitting an article to Science on surface chemistry but their pictures were not great and I thought I could improve on them. That was the beginning for me.

Do your images help scientists to understand their own work?

I think with the questions I ask, they're forced to clarify things in their own minds. I can see them thinking about what to say, I can see them figuring it out. It's a symbiotic and very rich relationship.

Are there any scientific concepts that you find impossible to represent?

I have gone to five lectures by Alan Guth on inflation theory and I just don't get it. And I just can't get string theory. I can sort of grasp four dimensions by looking at an animation, but there's just no way I can understand several more dimensions, no matter how you draw it. I have a wonderful relationship with some mathematicians but I don't understand their work. On some things, I just give up.

Further reading:

Felice Frankel's new book, Envisioning Science: The design and craft of the science image, is published by MIT Press in March 2002

(((also see: Many beautiful pictures!)))

Eugenie Samuel

>From New Scientist magazine, vol 171 issue 2309, 22/09/2001, page 42
  Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 2001

Sabine Atkins,
Director, Singularity Institute for AI (

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