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Science in Art, Art in Science

by Stephen K. Ritter
June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24

ROUGH ASCENSION AND OTHER POEMS OF SCIENCE , by Arthur J. Stewart, Celtic Cat Publishing, 2003, 87 pages, $15 (ISBN 0-9658950-5-X)

SUPER VISION: A New View of Nature , by Ivan Amato, Abrams Books, 2003, 232 pages, $40 (ISBN 0-8109-4545-2)

BIONANOTECHNOLOGY: Lessons from Nature , by David S. Goodsell, Wiley-Liss, 2004, 337 pages, $79.95 (ISBN 0-471-41719-X)

An image from Amato's "Super Vision" includes, on the surface of a mouse tongue, raspy keratin projections (with yellow centers)--which are used to help hold food on the tongue--observed with a light microscope using dark-field illumination. The color differentiation occurs by light bending into different wavelengths as it passes through the tongue's structures.
An image from Amato's "Super Vision" includes, on the surface of a mouse tongue, raspy keratin projections (with yellow centers)--which are used to help hold food on the tongue--observed with a light microscope using dark-field illumination. The color differentiation occurs by light bending into different wavelengths as it passes through the tongue's structures.

Science and the arts have always been at odds with one another. Well-known scientists, philosophers, artists, and writers have probed this tug-of-war topic since ancient times.

One classic example involves 19th-century British poet John Keats. In his poem "Lamia," an epic tale about a serpentlike creature who takes on the form of a fair maiden, Keats laments that dispassionate science would undo all that people fancy about the natural world--stuff that poets love to write about. His concern stems from Isaac Newton's use of optics to explain the origin of the colors of the rainbow.

"Philosophy will clip an angel's wings, conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine--unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made the tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade," Keats wrote.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins took the opposite view to defend science in his 1998 book "Unweaving the Rainbow." Dawkins made the point that, by gaining scientific knowledge, we expand our sense of wonder at the universe. "Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry," he noted.

This dichotomy of thought led chemist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow to famously call the humanities and the sciences the "two cultures" in lectures and published works some 40 years ago. This is perhaps better restated today as a divide between science and society.

The advent of computers and high-tech electronics has closed this cultural divide a little since Snow's time, but in some places it has opened the divide more broadly as society has placed greater demands on science. Most nonscientists want new and improved technology, but they don't want to learn what makes it possible--only that it does work, is instantaneous, and won't harm them.

It seems there should be a greater effort to meld the two cultures together. That's not a new concept, it's what a number of chemists and other scientists have been attempting to do in recent years. The idea is to seek some middle ground, not to bury the public in science but to make the culture of science more accessible while recognizing the strengths and limitations of both science and the humanities. These writers and artists want to communicate to the rest of the world more about who scientists are, how they think about their jobs, and how they go about being human beings.

As Cornell University chemistry professor and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann has noted, scientists don't have a greater insight into the workings of nature than poets. The reverse of that is true as well.

"Beauty does not reside in simplicity. Nor in complexity, per se," Hoffmann wrote in a recent essay. "For a molecule or a song, for a ceramic vase or a play, beauty is created out of the labor of human hands and minds. It is to be found, precarious, at some tense edge where symmetry and asymmetry, simplicity and complexity, order and chaos, contend."

Hoffmann's comments appear in Hyle--International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, which had a special issue last year (Vol. 9) that focused on the role of aesthetics and visualization in chemistry. Along with several essays, the issue comes with a CD, "Chemistry in Art: A Virtual Art Exhibition."

Hoffmann is perhaps the most literary chemist around today (C&EN, May 26, 2003, page 32). A good example is an article on chemical bonding he coauthored with chemistry professor Sason Shaik of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chemistry professor Philippe C. Hiberty of University of Paris-South [Acc. Chem. Res., 36, 750 (2003)]. In this account, the authors have a "trialog" discussion about the merits of the valence bond approach to describing chemical bonding. The article has inspired other chemists to send in "correspondence" that will be published soon in Accounts of Chemical Research.

Hoffmann's scientific literary talent is honed from his creative writing. He is one of a handful of published chemist-poets, with five volumes of poetry now to his credit. Hoffmann also teamed up with Stanford University emeritus chemistry professor Carl Djerassi to write a play, "Oxygen."

Djerassi has written autobiographies describing his work to develop the contraceptive pill and other aspects of his professional and personal life. He also has written several novels and plays using the theme of "science-in-fiction" to help make science better understood by a general audience.

Djerassi's latest work is "Newton's Darkness," a pair of plays, one written by Djerassi and the other by Colgate University drama professor David Pinner. The plays explore Newton's battle with Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus and Newton's disagreements with Robert Hooke over a number of topics.

There are a handful of other chemist-writers, such as Italian industrial chemist Primo Levi, who died in 1987 (C&EN, May 24, page 54), and British physical organic chemist Clare Dudman (C&EN, April 5, page 74). Other chemistry-related poets include Israeli physical chemist Avner Treinin, Spanish biochemist Francisco Garcia Olmedo, and British atmospheric scientist John Latham.

Environmental scientist Arthur J. Stewart made a recent debut into this world with his first published collection of poetry titled "Rough Ascension and Other Poems of Science." Stewart recently retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Although Stewart is trained as a limnologist rather than a chemist, chemistry is an important part of his research on stream ecology.

Stewart begins his book with an essay "On the Need for Poetry by Scientists." His objective here is "to try to nudge art and science a little closer by offering something tangible, something closer to the heart," he writes. "In my experience, scientists account for the greatest portion of the gulf between science and the arts, and it is scientists who may have the most to gain if this situation can be remedied."

It's important for scientists to become more comfortable and accepting of the use of metaphors, analogies, and similes in their work, Stewart adds, and to be willing and able to incorporate these literary devices into everyday thought.

Based on the book's title, one might assume that the poems are uncomfortably scientific. Stewart could have forced the poems to only be about science, with analytical lines like something out of a lab notebook. But fortunately this is not true. He carefully leaves the science as a fundamental basis for the poems while focusing on the other kind of chemistry--social interactions among people as they go about their lives. The literary quality of Stewart's poems, reminiscent of Carl Sandburg or W. H. Auden, is as good as any poetry being published today.

Some of the topics Stewart touches on are superstring theory, the radioactive core of the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear reactor, microtubule-based actuators, and gene expression. But he also conveys experiences from his youth, service as a Peace Corps volunteer, fatherhood, and being a research scientist. In one poem, he speaks about the pain of drudging through necessary paperwork when exciting results are going on in the lab. In another poem, he describes an "uncle" who used to unwind by having a few drinks on Friday evenings and singing on the front porch.

"I think there is a substantial benefit for scientists in becoming more proficient in the casting out and reeling in of thoughts, captured as language," Stewart tells C&EN. "Practice in this can involve reading poetry, writing poetry, or both. It becomes a matter of hooking thoughts together in novel ways.

"Creativity in one area spills over and fosters productivity in the other," he continues. "Language is the means of getting us from here to there, either in science or the arts. The delightful vocabulary in science can, and in my opinion should, be brought into poetry. The expressive language of poetry should be used more often by scientists."

There are a few examples of this "spilling over" that Stewart describes. But they sometimes are not obvious or they appear in obscure places.

A special issue of the Journal Public Understanding of Science [12, 227 (2003)] includes several thoughtful essays on the perception and representation of science in literature and films. The Journal of the American Medical Association has for some years used photos of fine art on its covers and has a feature titled "Poetry and Medicine." The journal provides a full-page description of the cover artwork, which usually has a medicinal theme. The poetry feature includes a single poem, also on a theme of medicine or life in a hospital or the examining room habitat of physicians.

The covers of science journals are another example. In the early 1990s, many journal covers had no artwork on them, relying on the journal title or perhaps a listing of contents or editors. There has been a slow change to more appealing covers, with most journal covers today displaying artwork related to an article appearing in the issue. This is at least true of American Chemical Society journals. Some of the journals still use the same covers for each issue but have embellished them with stylized art or structures.

The Journal of the American Chemical Society is an exception. The journal still uses only the title on the cover. But in 2002, with a change in editorship, the covers switched from a quiet gray to a more enlightened white. JACS editors have resisted changing the cover to preserve the history of the journal and because the sight of the current cover is immediately recognizable.

Much of this new scientific art appearing on journal covers--and increasingly on contents pages--is the result of molecular imaging made possible by advanced instrumentation and computer software. A good introduction that depicts the artistry and diversity of science is a coffee-table book titled "Super Vision: A New View of Nature." It's a collection of science-based images, ranging from the nanoscale to the structure of the universe, put together by science journalist Ivan Amato.

Amato has spent more than 20 years as a freelance writer and an associate editor at Science News. He is the author of several books, including "Stuff: The Materials the World Is Made of."

"Super Vision" features more than 200 images from atomic force microscopes, electron microscopes, light microscopes, thermal detectors, radio telescopes, and other instruments and analytical methods. The images include colorized tracks of subatomic particles in accelerators, individual atoms on metal surfaces, salt crystals, single-cell organisms, neurons, the human body, icebergs, planets, and the Milky Way. Amato comments that scientists who have devised and used the tools to capture these images are creating a new way of envisioning the world.

These images are striking on their own. But Amato's descriptions accompanying each image provide readers with insight into the machinations of nature that led to the images and an explanation of the technology that made the images possible. Thus the book serves the reader emotional and intellectual components.

"For most of the scientists themselves, these images serve primarily as information--graphic ways of testing theories, recording measurements, and gathering data," Amato writes. "Yet many of these same investigators evidently see something more. Why else would they frame their data and hang it on their walls? For what other reason would magazines like Nature and Science proudly display these images on their covers, in full color from page edge to page edge?"

A related book worth checking out is "A Gallery of Fluid Motion," published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. This book presents winning images from the American Physical Society's annual photo contests of fluids in motion, which depict vortices, drops and bubbles, combustion, and turbulence.

Biomolecules, a subset of Amato's subject, are the focus of Scripps Research Institute biochemist David S. Goodsell in his textbook "Bionanotechnology: Lessons from Nature." The book is being promoted as the first comprehensive look at the topic of making connections between structural molecular biology and molecular nanotechnology--using proteins as structural materials to make functional nanomachines.


"Bionanotechnology" is well written and informative. That alone would make it a good read for chemists. But there's a bonus: The book is full of Goodsell's unique illustrations of biomolecules and cells.

The long flagellar motor (pink, at left) of Escherichia coli, built for propulsion, spans the cell wall of a bacterium and turns the corkscrew-shaped flagellum in this illustration from Goodsell's "Bionanotechnology." A second rotary motor of the cell, ATP synthase, also spans the cell wall (red, at right). The flagella rotate at rates of more than 100,000 rpm.
The long flagellar motor (pink, at left) of Escherichia coli, built for propulsion, spans the cell wall of a bacterium and turns the corkscrew-shaped flagellum in this illustration from Goodsell's "Bionanotechnology." A second rotary motor of the cell, ATP synthase, also spans the cell wall (red, at right). The flagella rotate at rates of more than 100,000 rpm.

Goodsell is one of a handful of scientists and commercial artists who specialize in molecular art. Goodsell creates his art using computer software, some of which he has designed himself. The actual images are based on experimental results from multiple labs, including molecular structures and electron micrographs. He transforms the data on the computer, adding information from simulations used to study biomolecule interactions within cellular structures.

His overall research involves using computational methods to study protein structure and function associated with HIV drug resistance. One of Goodsell's goals is to seek out inhibitors that bind well with the viral protease and will be effective in combating HIV as it mutates and produces variant enzymes.

This is Goodsell's third book, following "The Machinery of Life" and "Our Molecular Nature: The Body's Motors, Machines, and Messages," which he also illustrated and which were published in the mid-1990s. He now writes a regular column called "The Molecular Perspective" for the Oncologist, a medical journal.

Goodsell's goal is to use the artistic renditions to help "imagine biological molecules in their proper context: packed into cells." It's a better way to visualize and model the behavior of biomolecules than relying on conceptualized cartoons or raw micrographs, Goodsell says. When these computer-generated graphics fall short, Goodsell also paints images of molecules and cells in watercolors. This work has been presented in several art shows, and he has been commissioned to create art for research centers.

Goodsell says he began to develop scientific art following his realization that scientists are incredibly specialized, and that he felt like he was losing touch with the "magic of science." Even though software today allows many scientists to be more artistic, Goodsell believes that there will continue to be a need for specialists in the field of scientific illustration.

Getting published or having your artwork recognized is not easy. But neither is doing science. More chemist-poets, -novelists, -artists, and -musicians will always be welcome. Their work will continue to help break down any barriers that the general public has to accepting science. It will further allow nonscientists to see that science is another way of looking at the world, that scientists, as part of society, can be artisans as well.



November settles down at last
snapping cold wet
leaves off trees. Blackbirds
flew south last week; a few juncos

just in from the north
ahead of the storm
bounce among bushes. Each flashes
a pair of white-edged feathers

on a slender tail.
Watching them now I think back
to this morning--tail-feather memory
about a dog, or a wily creature like a dog,

quicker, leaner, more dangerous,
slinking to the edge of the woods.
With this thought I find myself
lost, looking for specifics

among generalizations.
I search for a way to move forward
smoothly, steering among
fragments of silence.

I dig down to molecules,
each of which knows nothing
more than its own existence;
imagine I see them 

looking at each other
over hypothetical shoulders,
Heisenbergian, busy gnashing
tiny teeth; finally they shimmer 

to reluctant agreement--
enough, at least, to line up and hold hands
electrostatically speaking:
long enough, anyway, 

to make keratin, shafts, hooks, barbels
feather-pieces, colors, bits of bone, a tendon,
a drop of warm blood here,
a beak there, a bright eye, 

yes, bringing, oh,
such temporary closure to juncos--
each different;
each in disequilibrium; 

each proud of that pair of white-edged
feathers in the perky little tail.


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