It is a truth universally acknowledged that a brand-new blog is in desperate need of a topic. (And readers, of course – but you’ve found your way here somehow.) Bioephemera is about the intersection of science – mainly biology – and the arts. I am a biologist and an artist, but I’ve always felt awkward identifying myself as both. This strange combination seems to beg an explanation. But why?
Several years ago, as a graduate student in neurobiology at UC Berkeley, I helped to create a popular science magazine: the Berkeley Science Review. The original editorial team envisioned the BSR as a way to expose scientists to areas of research outside their “comfort zones.” We were more successful than I’d hoped, and the BSR just released its tenth issue. Check it out if you have a minute!
It was important to me from the start that the BSR bridge the yawning gap between science and humanities – art and poetry are about as far as you can get from the stereotypical scientist’s “comfort zone.” I don’t think we were as successful in that respect. We ended up with a wonderful publication, and we found room in each issue for a collection of art or photos. However, I felt the art ended up secondary to the science – illustrating and enlivening the science, but not presented as a serious topic of research in its own right. I began to wonder how practical it really is for art and science to cohabitate as intellectual endeavors.
Last year, as I taught a freshman class called Introduction to the Natural Sciences, I found myself enforcing a strict distinction between rational, inquiry-based fields of knowledge like biology, and. . . art! This simple division was useful from a teaching perspective – my point was that art, religion, and ethics all lie beyond the purview of the scientific method. But to be truthful, it can be darn hard to untangle biology, that most visual of the sciences, from art. Images of new species or patterns of gene expression are the centerpieces of biological research papers. Neurobiological processes inform the visual process and through it, the appreciation of art.
In all areas of science, theories (and experiments) are revered for their “elegance” (as in Brian Greene’s excellent popularization of string theory, “The Elegant Universe”). Speaking of popularization, vintage scientific illustration is now embraced as a trendy design aesthetic everywhere from Martha Stewart Living (I love this article – it turns out botanists actually use botanical illustrations to study plants! who knew?) to Pottery Barn (either Pottery Barn’s designers are copying my house, or I’m really tuned into the zeitgeist).
The truth is, I can’t begin to draw a clean boundary between biology and art, but I really enjoy wandering the DMZ between them.
If you ask a biologist why he or she chose biology as a career, I’ll bet most will cite a deep feeling of wonder and appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the natural world. But that feeling is not so easy to find in the lab, where we try to be objective and logical (and efficient). How we can initially turn to biology for such emotional, unscientific reasons, and then neglect them afterward, is a puzzling thing. We may never have tried to formally articulate our wonder. We may enjoy the richness and motivation it brings to our work, without needing any articulation. Even so, since art is all about capturing inarticulate truths and inspiring wonder, art may have something practical to offer biologists – a way to recapture that original feeling of wonder and surprise that brought us here.
All that said, this blog doesn’t promise to dismantle the inner clockworks of the brain, or define “beauty,” or anything nearly so dramatic. It’s just a home for my art and musings. Hopefully you’ll find something to spark your interest now and then. Enjoy.