The Art of Scientific Discovery

As many are aware, scientific publications can be nightmarishly difficult to read and understand. Dense, cramped paragraphs and sparse visuals render the digestion of scientific literature needlessly difficult, often begging a critical question: why can’t science be artistic, too? There was once a time when science was inextricably entwined with art, when the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci created art that was science and science that was art. But at some point in history, the bond between art and aesthetic was severed, leaving us to slog through pages of formulas that could be replaced with a single image or animation. 

Recently, this lack of aesthetic has caused more repercussions than ever before. Modern experiments are hopelessly complex and could benefit greatly from animations and pictures, but graphic artists are expensive and research budgets are limited. Excuses are numerous and valid, but the problem still needs to be solved. Many agree that the communication of science is nearly as important as the science itself—by that logic, there is no reason for scientists to treat diagrams and graphical illustrations with such disdain. Why can’t scientists today learn graphical skills, just as their predecessors did?

For thousands of years,  scientists have used illustrations and diagrams not only as a tool for explanation, but oftentimes as an instrument of discovery? Many of our greatest discoveries might never have happened had a diagram not provided another perspective of the problem. In ancient Greece, so-called “proofs without words” were often sufficient for proving mathematical concepts. In fact, diagrams and geometrical associations were used almost exclusively to solve problems until the 16th century, when Newton and Leibniz began  to model the world using mathematical equations. This marked a critical turning point; science began to stray from its artistic roots, entering an increasingly abstract world described by pure math.

Newly invented tools, namely calculus and Rene Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system, allowed physics and math to describe most of the world without the need for illustrations or diagrams. For the first time in history, drawings were consigned to the mundane task of description, not discovery. In all fields, from math and physics to anatomy and biology, diagrams fell from grace. 

This period of abstraction continued until the 1800s, when the advent of the microscope began to reveal cells and other minuscule structures. John Dalton’s atomic theory began to take hold, and science rushed to study things that the naked eye can never see. Suddenly, the image became necessary to describe all these extremely small experiments. And yet, scientists continued to contemptuously regard images as a means to an end, and the task of reconstructing visuals was relegated to photographic equipment and, later, computers. 

Today, scientists generally hold the same view on visual communication as they did one hundred years ago, to the great detriment of science. Even with modern computers’ powerful animation abilities, few have used it to explain difficult scientific concepts. One of these people is Drew Berry, a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI). Berry animates the fundamental molecular processes governing our lives, such as the division of cells and the copying of chromosomes.

While his work synthesizes art and science in a way that harkens back to the High Renaissance, his tools are exceedingly modern, using cutting-edge computer rendering to animate thousands of molecules experiencing Brownian motion. Berry has been celebrated by both scientific organizations and high-profile art museums such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, and has travelled around the world, enlightening people to the remarkably human qualities of the molecules within our cells. Through his colorful and accurate animated videos, people of all backgrounds can understand how simple chemical reactions can yield the complex behavior of life. 

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In mathematics, a similar kind of visual guru has emerged. Grant Sanderson, a graduate from Stanford University and the founder of 3Blue1Brown, has revolutionized the way we teach math. In 2015, he developed a program to animate graphs and used it to create a series of wildly successful educational math videos. The videos feature almost no numbers or equations, instead relying on dynamic animations to demonstrate and visually prove abstract mathematical concepts. Sanderson has reached millions of students, granting them a visual intuition for math that most traditional techniques fail to provide.

Sanderson and Berry are just two pioneers among a growing number of people who are reintroducing visuals into science. Animations have the power of democratizing math, encouraging those with little mathematical background to experience the exciting discoveries being made every day. Sanderson and Berry represent the forefront of a growing push to reanimate science with illustrative visuals, bringing back art as an integral tool for scientists.  Even journals are beginning to embrace the descriptive power of visuals, encouraging authors to submit e graphical abstracts that can condense an entire paper into a single image or diagram. These initiatives represent a small but significant resurgence of interest in scientific art, granting hope for more extensive adoption of aesthetic ideas in the future. As the strained relationship between science and art begins to mend, education programs could begin reintroducing art and graphic design as essential components of the STEM education. In time, this could create a new generation of scientists with broad, artistically conscious skills that hearken back to the Renaissance, presenting discoveries that could hang in the Louvre as well as art that could be featured in Science.