Science-art at ScienceOnline11

This weekend I'll be tweeting and blogging from ScienceOnline11 in North Carolina.  It's my third year participating and continuing the discussion about science-related visual art.

The first year I raised the idea of science-art being somewhat parasitic on science - it's rare if ever that artwork directs the course of research.  The group in session convinced me that much of art's value is in contributing to an atmosphere of inspiration.

Last year, I was joined by my co-moderator, Felice Frankel.  We discussed the value of metaphor in science comprehension, and exploring visual metaphors as thought experiments.

This year, the session will be moderated by anthropologist-artist John Hawks and graphic designer, dinosaur-dynamo David Orr of Love in the Time of the Chasmosaurs and myself. You can see our official wiki page here.

David has posted an interesting starting point I want to explore a bit more. Wheels are spinning.

In his post David says,

But looking back at LITC as it has evolved, I realize that much of what I write about has to do with the line between the two. Glendon approaches it from a fine art background. I approach it from a design background and lifelong love of illustration. 

This has me thinking a bit about the other difference between David's blog, my own, and John's. How "serious" the science is, and the type of artwork on it.

The artwork David frequently highlights on Love in the Time of the Chasmosaurs with regularity is dinosaur illustrations - and most often, out-of-date, erroneous, quirky and fantastical dinosaur illustrations.  Take a look at this and this.  (And don't miss these wonderful vector birds by David himself!)

Compare David's work to say, John's sketchbook.  In both cases a deft hand and artistic skill is evident.  However, if asked, which would you say is the more "serious"?

To remove the discussion from my colleagues art, please compare these two images of my own.

If you were studying a Red Knot, a shorebird sometimes seen in Cyprus, you would likely trust this image to some degree:

(Created for blogger-conservationist Dan Rhoads Migrations blog.)

I can tell you that the length of the wings is a bit long, but overall I was aiming for natural, scientific accuracy in colour and form.

Compare that to this Pink Parasaurolophus, a duck-billed hadrosaur with a magnificent crest/horn:

(Created for the Art Evolved Pink Dinosaurs for Breast Cancer Research Charity Drive.)

Would you trust this as a reference?  Why not?  What about each fold and contour along the pink dino's belly?  Accurate?  The width and length of the tail?

So then, what is the value of the Pink Parasaurolophus as opposed to the Red Knot?

In visual science communication, one of the most important roles for art to play is in hooking new minds into the science in the first place.  At a conference like ScienceOnline, where everyone is already engaged and married to science already, the value of a pink dinosaur is set aside a bit, like an old toy.  The Red Knot is sober, serious, striving for accuracy - it's important in a different way, as a reference and a study of the true form.

And that's what excites me about the panel this year. To paint everyone far too simply:
David Orr is the graphic designer, the toy-maker and introduction to science.
I'm the fine artist, metaphor-maker and science's distorted mirror.
John is the scientific illustrator, the study in clarity, the scientific backbone.

Can't wait to see who else joins in the session this year!  

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow