Science Presents a Rich Picture of the World

I have been making my way through some key philosophy of science texts recently. It is quite intense. Once I got past the feeling that I was reading a foreign language, I found it easier to skim-read a little and to skip the long examples so as not to get too lost in the detail. Perhaps like actually reading a text in a foreign language, cracking a code or solving a hard maths problem, once I did begin to grasp the essence of what was being said, I found the experience quite exhilarating.

This is a nice excerpt from Bas C. Van Fraassen’s ‘The Scientific Image’ (1980; p.59):

Science presents a picture of the world which is much richer in content than what the unaided eye discerns. But science itself teaches us also that it is richer than the unaided eye can discern.

Once again this week my thoughts have returned to my Cell Paintings. It all keeps coming back to them, since they were where my path into molecular biology really began. I was in my first year of art school and I remember feeling like these paintings really held something, but that I couldn’t understand exactly what that was. The paintings were copied or inspired by images I’d found in physiology textbooks, of cells and histology specimens. Not only did I not understand what I was looking at, I also was unable to create the original images for myself – to see the full field of vision and define the composition.

I came across the Foldscope project last week. A group of scientists at Stanford University have developed a series of microscopes that can be printed, cut out from a sheet of paper and assembled like a piece of origami. An aim of the project is to develop a method for diagnosing diseases such as malaria, rife in the developing world and whose treatment requires an accurate diagnosis of the species causing the disease. The research group have launched a project to test and develop the microscopes, ‘Ten Thousand Microscope Project’, with the aim of beta-testing the microscopes, generating stories and experiences of people using the microscopes to produce a manual for their use. I’ve applied to take part, with the aim of creating some new cell paintings.

In making art (or doing science), I am often confronted by the ‘why’ question. In the post-photography era, where is the point in depicting a group of objects in a still-life in meticulous detail for example, or, in this case, copying a photograph taken using a microscope of some cells? Van Fraassen’s words could also apply to the making of these cell paintings, which I like. My paintings in a sense illustrate that “Science presents a picture of the world which is much richer in content than what the unaided eye discerns.” As images in a textbook they are a teaching tool, but by making them into paintings, I am adding depth and detail through the materials I have used. By changing the platform (moving the images from the textbook to the gallery) I am bringing them to viewers who might not previously have seen them. Moreover, I am asking them to be viewed in a different way – not for the information they hold (to the learned viewer) but for their aesthetic and philosophical properties.

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