Opening the Black Gate: Revealing Scientific Achievements with Art
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By Carol Bengle Gilbert 4 hours agoRebecca Kamen at a recent speaking engagement.Rebecca Kamen is an artist whose creations bridge the intersection of visual art and science. One of her signature projects is a three-dimensional, visual interpretation of the Periodic Table of Elements, called "Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden." Kamen recently shared the highlights of her hybrid career with high school students under the auspices of the USA Science & Engineering Festival's Nifty Fifty speaker series.
You describe you the work you're doing as bridging the intersection of art and science. How did you find yourself in this unusual role?
I was invited to do some lecturing in the People's Republic of China back in the mid-1980s. During one of my lectures in Szechuan province, I met sculptor, Zhao Shu Tong. Zhao and I connected on a deep artistic level even though we didn't speak the same language. We developed an idea of creating a collaborative sculpture, exploring scientific contributions of eastern and western technology. It was an opportunity through art, to celebrate the scientific and technological discoveries of the east and the west. Because of the political and economic situation at the time between our countries, the project was never fully realized.
The Chinese built beautiful, ornate scientific instruments that are amazing works of art. My experiences in China and doing research on ancient Chinese science and technology and contributions of the west planted the seeds to investigate intersections of art and science.
I've also traveled to interesting places, countries that are a bit more off the beaten track, like Burma, and Bhutan. These ancient cultures resonate with me because they're untouched in many ways. I'm also interested in cosmology and creation stories from different cultures. I started realizing that every culture has created its own narrative of how the universe started. Researching these cultural cosmologies was a catalyst for my early interest in outer space. From there, my artwork started reflecting a lot of my research and observations in these areas. It rekindled an initial passion I had as a child to want to be a scientist.Your art training is on your resume, an undergraduate degree in art education from Penn State, and two master's degrees, one from Rhode Island School of Design and the other from the University of Illinois… where did the science come in?
…it goes back to my childhood. I loved to understand how things work. I grew up in the fifties before the Internet and Google and YouTube. I had an intense curiosity and sense of awe and wonder for everything in the universe and how it worked. I was the type of child who would get a doll and take it apart to understand how the body parts articulated. My dad taught me to use a hammer when I was four. It's empowering to be able to examine the world around you and then build it in a unique way. Building things enables you to understand how things work.
I always wanted to be a scientist. Actually, growing up in the fifties, I wanted to be the first woman astronaut… With Sputnik, there was an imperative in the country about the space race. I got completely swept away with it…. [With respect to becoming an astronaut,] there was a problem. First, I tend to get airsick, and number two, I had challenges understanding math. It wasn't until I became a college professor that I realized I was dyslexic. We didn't really know much about dyslexia until the1970's. This learning challenge, when I was young, prevented me from feeling I could pursue a science career.
I was able to get into an undergraduate school, but on probation because my SAT scores were so low. I decided the only way I was going to have success in college was to figure out a way of getting through without taking a math course. Art education was the only curriculum at Penn State where I did my undergraduate work, that didn't require a math course. And I thought, "Well, wow, I like to make things with my hands, and I want to teach," and it was a perfect fit. And once I took my first sculpture course, my career in art just took off.What process do you go through in coming up with ideas for your projects?
I do my research in a very serious and methodical way, very similar to the process of a scientist, and I started realizing that there's a lot of similarity between creative problem solving in the fields of art and science. There's the hypothesis, coming up with a good problem, something you want to investigate, and then the discovery process which results in "aha!" moments. And finally, taking your research putting it into a tangible form that enables it to be shared with others.
Another similarity between artists and scientists is that they create narratives. The more compelling the narrative the more willing people are to fund the research or to show the artwork in a museum or a gallery. One of the types of narratives we tell is nature's story. Artists and scientists are storytellers. We give a voice to nature through our work.Your sculpture "Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden" has gotten pretty wide acclaim. What's the story behind it?
This sculpture installation explores and celebrates the Periodic Table of Elements. Many people only think of the Table as a rigid, gridded chart, but what's so profound about it, is it's really our cosmology. It represents the world above, below and everything in between. When you think about it in that way, it becomes a sort of Holy Grail of the universe. I wanted to create something that was so compelling and beautiful, a catalyst for the viewer especially children to want to go and find out more about the significance of the chart and the elements. And that's what happened. I created an installation based on the notion of a garden, because gardens are about contemplation, and mathematics. They're about order, and about systematically placing things. So that's why I created the layout of the installation on a Fibonacci spiral. The actual sculptures are inspired by the orbital patterns of the first 83 naturally occurring elements in the Table.
It has captured a lot of people's imagination. If you can get people excited about the Periodic Table of Elements, I think all things are possible. [The Periodic Table] is probably the greatest science icon of all time.
The initial exhibition was at the Greater Reston Arts Center, Reston, VA. A friend who's a filmmaker in California did a wonderful short film about it which was shown at the exhibition. I also worked with a musician who was researching what I was with elements but using sound. When you walked through the sculpture installation you not only saw it visually, but you heard it. Susan Alexjander's soundscape is based on the notion that atoms vibrate and anything that vibrates creates a sound. Atomic vibration is inaudible with the human ear, but through a Larmor Frequency, which is the frequency of MRIs, she's able to make it audible and used it to compose the sound piece.
What is so powerful about walking through the installation is that you're hearing the sound of the elements in your body. People reported feeling a sense of awakening when they walked through the elemental garden. On one level, we were trying to connect people to themselves. What people don't realize is, they're living, breathing science. Part of what I'm trying to do with my work is to make science more connected to humanity… I'm trying to make it accessible, make it so captivating that people want to feel consciously connected to it.Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden (c) 2009, Mylar, fiberglass rods. Inspired by the orbital patterns of the first 83 naturally occurring elements in the periodic table. In the collection of the School of Science, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.For anyone reading this who might want to visit it, where is Divining Nature?
It has been gifted to George Mason University and is currently in storage until a permanent home is identified. The sculpture installation will be shown again as part of an exhibition titled: "STEAM: Art at the Core" this summer at an art center outside of NYC.When you talk of bridging art and science, are you putting art into science or science into art?
I'm doing both. I think they inform each other. Divining Nature, the Periodic Table installation, has engaged so many diverse audiences. This project has captured people's imagination- I have chemists emailing me and saying thank you I never thought of chemistry as being so beautiful.
Harvard University's Science Media Group is developing a 21st century online chemistry course for students, and I was invited to brainstorm with them about how to make chemistry exciting and accessible for students. The Divining Nature project will be showcased as part of this online course as a way of demystifying chemistry and the Periodic Table for students. It's an honor, to create a work that functions as both art, and one that a university like Harvard will use in an educational capacity to inspire students to think about science in a new and innovative ways.Is collaboration common in your work?
I started working collaboratively at the University of Illinois, during a Master's Degree in Art Education, working with a dancer, and an electronic music composer. What I found is when I work collaboratively, which is very different than working alone in a studio, that I get more input and a lot more out of the experience.
What I'm noticing with interactions with scientists is that they always work in a lab as a team. It's sort of an extended family situation, which is very, different than being an artist. But because I work collaboratively with a lot of creative people, it's similar I think to the experiences of scientists in a lab.
Throughout my years of education and as a professor of art, I have never lost my sense of discovery, and love for science.
I feel like I've been given the greatest gift in my life. I get to do science without rules. It's exciting being able to investigate science and to make observations based on looking at many scientific fields. Discoveries made in one scientific field inspire artwork and lectures that enable me to share these observations and discoveries with another scientific disciplines. Viewing science more interdisciplinary enables me use my work to show relationships and how various scientific disciplines interconnect.For young people who look to your work and want to do what you do, is it a viable career? Is there room for more people to forge a path similar to yours?
I think there is. I'm trying to create that. One of the reasons I left a very stable teaching career is to participate in the paradigm shift that I sense is happening right now with science education. Because of my own interest and passion about science, and my unique way of seeing, I feel like I can contribute to this dialogue.What changes would you like to see in science education?
I've always been really curious, and love discovery, I use it a lot when I teach, I was fortunate growing up at a time when schools really embraced the notion of play. It really saddens me because we've taken play out of the school experience. Play enables learning through discovery and through discovery, we learn innovation. By taking play out of the school system, we're losing an inherent way to discover.
One of the things that excites me about the new STEM and STEAM initiative [STEAM is the addition of Art to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math movement] is empowering students to discover, by bringing the arts, creativity and innovation back into the equation in terms of the learning experience.
Having taught art on the college level for many years, I've seen students grow and change because of technology and social media. I feel we need to re-engage students back into the excitement of building things with their hands whether it's a robot or a piece of sculpture, just that act of discovery and problem solving is something I think is so vital in my field in the arts and also in the sciences.Illumination (c) 2012, Acrylic on mylar , 36" x 36" x 10"
About three or four years ago, I was interviewed for an article published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, one of the major repositories for chemistry information and chemistry education. CHF is an organization I've done research at; they have an incredible library of scientific rare books. The Foundation's magazine conducted an interview with me and science writer, Ivan Amato, discussing the notion of rekindling a sense of awe and wonder about science: the things that we remember growing up as kids before the internet, a time when you discovered using your imagination. Ivan is trained as a scientist and…I'm trained in the arts. And both of us came to the same conclusion: [cross-training] is really important to discovery and innovation.
I'm excited to be part of Nifty Fifty Program. I wish they had this when I was growing up. Anything I can do to inspire people to get excited about science is something that means a great deal to me personally and professionally. Being able to connect people to the fact they are living, breathing science is thrilling.You mentioned dyslexia. Does that affect your work?
My curiosity has enabled me to cross paths with scientists in diverse scientific fields with virtually no formal training in science. Even though I have trouble with reading and math, dyslexia has enabled me to learn by relating facts to higher ideas. Einstein, who was also dyslexic, expressed that "imagination is more important than knowledge". My work bridging art and science has made me aware that what appeared as a learning challenge when I was young has turned out to be an incredible opportunity, providing new ways of seeing.What kind of scientific investigation are you working on now?
I'm working in two different scientific communities at the moment, scientists at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, and with neuroscientists at National Institutes of Health. Working on research in these two diverse fields, I see parallels and relationships that scientists in each field don't initially see. It's exciting being invited to lecture to different groups of scientists. I'm able to bring to the astrophysicists observations I've made in neuroscience and vice versa. When you think about it, what we're looking at here is inner and outer space. What I have started to observe is that patterns are a conduit between scientific fields as well as the field of art. Seeing patterns, creating patterns… and the brain actually is wired to see patterns; that's how we identify and recognize things. The more I investigate in diverse scientific fields, the more I start seeing relationships of phenomena that most scientists don't really get to investigate because of the nature of how science is conducted.
Because of the large amount of scientific information and data, fields of science are becoming myopic. As an example, a scientist researching a protein in a synapse might only dialogue with other scientists researching the same area. No one seems to put all the pieces of research together, creating a bigger picture.
When I'm invited into a scientific research community I interview scientists in various disciplines. It provides a unique vantage point almost like a hawk. I 'm able to get high above, and connect the dots and see new relationships and connections between the sciences, in ways that a lot of these other scientist can't.
… every time I'm invited into another scientific community it usually has a big black gate around it, and you need special IDs to get into it. I try to build bridges, using my art to create observations that intersect and or connect different scientific disciplines, and create artwork that becomes a catalyst for people to want to find out more about the science that inspires it. I take all of this wonderful research out of the gated communities, humanized it in some way by making it aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, and then share it with other people, either through exhibitions or lecturing about the intersections of art and science. And it's been some of the most gratifying work that I've done.You were quoted by a RISD publication as saying "Artists are universal investigators. We look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That's when discovery happens." Is that a universally accepted premise in the science world, or are you the evangelist bringing that message?
I think scientists are universal investigators as well. Einstein, when gnawing on a problem, would go play the violin. Music, is very mathematical, and enabled him to envision things sometimes that he couldn't figure out just looking at a mathematical equation. I have always felt the more senses engaged, the greater the learning Doing something a little more kinesthetic, enables you understand things in a different way. Einstein's violin playing is a good example of this. And there are other scientists who have engaged in various forms of art who have reported that creative endeavors have enhanced the way they think about their science.
It's the same way for me. I can't look at anything without thinking of it in relationship to something else that I've seen. I'm doing research at the moment on dark matter. I've taught design for many years on a college level. What I started realizing is that dark matter creates a symbiotic relationship with the stars. If there were no darkness around the stars, we wouldn't see the them. I'm almost wondering if dark matter is something like the yin yang sign, that one can't exist without the other. When you teach someone how to draw an object, it is not always by drawing the object, but drawing the space around the object. What enables us to see the object is not the object, but the space around it. I'm wondering if that's true with dark matter. Does dark matter enable us to see matter? This is all based on speculation and my training as an artist, looking at what we call negative and positive space and how one defines the other.
There was a very famous 19th century astronomer Percival Lowell, who purported seeing canals on Mars. He fashioned an eyepiece for his telescope that would enable him to see that far. Lowell created beautiful drawings describing his observations, thinking he discovered canals on Mars. It's been recently revealed that he wasn't looking at outer space with the special lens that he crafted, but inner space; he was actually looking inside his eye and thinking it was these canals on Mars. Colleagues at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard knew I'd been working in neuroscience, and shared this story with me, In turn, I shared it with a neuroscience colleague at NIH. He was totally blown away because of his research of the retina.
I have this wonderful image of the human retina and the optic nerve, juxtaposed next to one of Lowell's drawings of what he thought were canals on Mars which I show during lectures. This notion of inner and outer space is fascinating to me. It is similar to the idea of a fractal - the shape of a neuron is the same shape and the same branching system as a tree which is the same branching system of galaxies……patterns that are the same but at different scales. As an artist, I see patterns as significant conduits between diverse fields of study.That's amazing, but I guess it's what works. If it works in one application, nature can adapt it to another.
It's true. I totally agree. One of the advantages that I have is I get to look at all of this and in looking at the big picture, I'm able to see things that scientists can't see because they're examining such small pieces of a much larger picture. For me it's thrilling to be able to have this unique vantage point and to take what I'm observing and use it to create an exciting object that summarizes or shares what I'm seeing in a visual way .
It's always exciting sharing my observations with scientists. I was doing a lecture to neuroscientists a couple of summers ago at NIH I looked at this group of neuroscientists in a traditional scientific amphitheater and I said, "Are you aware that the brain is the only organ in the body that can study itself?", "The liver can't study itself. The heart can't study itself." You should have seen the look on their faces.I never thought of that. It's obvious. But it's so obvious, you'd never stop to think about it.
I know. And I thought, I don't even know where it came from, but all of a sudden this notion entered into my consciousness and it was too good of a moment not to share with this group of neuroscientists. And, obviously, they hadn't given it much thought. But, you see, that's part of my fascination with the brain. Can it be objective if it studies itself?Can you share some of the ways developing artistic insight proves beneficial to scientists?
I was invited to do a lecture last year to neuroscientists at the Cajal Institute in Madrid. Santiago Ramon y Cajal won the Nobel Prize for his work with neurons in 1906. It provided an opportunity to not only present a lecture on my work inspired by Cajal research (see "Illumination," one of the sculptures inspired by Cajal's retina research) but to research in his archives. Researching in his archives was revelatory! Cajal was also trained as an artist and loved art. When he was about 12 or 13, his dad said, "No, you have to become a physician like me." I really believe after spending time looking through his archives, at paintings he did when he was 8 years old, that his ability to see as an artist at such a young age enabled him to observe and record and see things that would facilitate his winning the Nobel Prize in 1906. He is the poster child for research I've been doing on how art and creativity can be used to enhance our understanding of science.
Research has been conducted on chemists who've won Nobel Prizes in the United States. One of the things that they have found is that Nobel-winning chemists have reported that they have had a significant arts experience growing up- that could be music, or visual arts, or theater- that empowered them to look at science through different lenses. I feel that it is important to have the arts as part of this dialogue with science, because art can enhance creative problem-solving and innovation.
I developed an art and creativity workshop for the science summer intern program at George Mason University called the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program. It involves presenting a lecture about the intersections of art and science. I also discuss how visualization becomes a bridge between art and science because, as an artist and a scientist, we're always dealing with the invisible world. Visualization in both art and science makes the invisible visible. What I challenge these summer interns to do is to use some type of art form to express or convey some aspect of their research. It's been incredible what these young science interns have created. Last year, we had a student interpreting his research using Haiku. I was in total awe. He mentioned he always loved poetry, and he said writing the Haiku helped him to interpret his research. If you think about Haiku, it's a distilled form of poetry and, when you're doing research, you have to distill the information to write an abstract or a scientific report. That's what Haiku's about, so to me that was a brilliant solution to that problem.
Robert Hooke created one of the first microscopes and wrote the book Micrographia. He not only understood and was able to create a microscope, he created beautiful engravings of what he was seeing under magnification. One day he looked at a piece of cork under the microscope and it reminded him of the small rooms called cells that monks lived in. The term "cell" developed from this investigation back in the 1600s.
Another science hero is the astronomer Galileo. He had a passion for water colors… and recorded celestial observations with this art medium. Before the advent of the camera, scientists had to be artists. They had to be able to capture observations through drawings and paintings
Sometimes the camera can be a real detriment to scientific discovery. When you photograph something, you capture it, and it's done. Prior to the development of the camera, scientists would draw their observations. When you draw something you are not only capturing it, you're processing what you're seeing. I wonder if the slow process of drawing an observation, compared to modern day scientific camera capture has changed scientific discovery on some level?When you're drawing, your brain is figuring out why this is the way it is, you have to get it right, you're thinking about the details, and questions naturally arise, whereas if you're looking at a picture, you may or may not notice. You really have to notice if you're drawing it.
I totally agree. I had an epiphany researching at the Cajal institute in Madrid last year. I got to look at a Golgi-stained slide. Two scientists won the Nobel Prize for neuroscience in 1906. One was Santiago Ramon y Cajal , the other, Camillo Golgi. Golgi developed the stain that allowed scientists to see neurons. Originally, when that stain was developed, it was revolutionary.
The stain wasn't too refined, so when scientists looked through the microscope they thought the neuronal system was a netting called a reticulum. Cajal thought, "I can refine this stain. I think there's more to this than what we're seeing." And that's the artist's intuition there. Good scientists have really great intuition as well. Cajal was able to change the formula of the stain, thinning it a little bit, enabling him to see that it wasn't a neuronal netting but individual neuronal cells.
Cajal was also able to adjust the focal length of what he was viewing to provide more depth in viewing his histological slides… when you look at a histological slide, it's a stained slide, and some of the forms look very nebulous especially slides that were captured back in the early 19th century. Cajal really understood form and how it worked, because he drew a lot as a child, and this contributed to his ability to see and make the kind of discoveries he made within neuroscience.
…because of my research in neuroscience, I have been invited to present two lectures as part of Brain Awareness Week at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, MD. Most people presenting at this event are neuroscientists or people associated in more formal or traditional fields within neuroscience. My presentation discussing Cajal, as both artist and scientist, will showcase how Cajal's childhood love for art enabled him to make significant discoveries in neuroscience.http://news.yahoo.com/opening-black-gate-revealing-scientific-achievements-art-193700180.html