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Putting the Show in Show and Tell – Science and the Arts

an image of the R Aquarii binary star system
Symbiotic R Aquarii, image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Source: NASA

Science communication in its written form is moving steadily towards a future based in narrative style.

There are, however, scientists who have been working with the media for decades, using television, radio and podcasts to tell science stories.

These broadcast scientists include Sir David Attenborough, Professor Brian Cox, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, the late Dr Carl Sagan, Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy.

These scientists have become household names the world over. They each have their own TV, radio or podcast programme, which aims to inspire the general public to embrace their curiosity about the world (and universe) we live in.

Television, radio, and the internet have played a vital role in expanding the ways in which science is communicated to the public.

These programmes combine science with the arts of communication, film production, and photography to produce science stories that are entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

In short, they don’t just tell stories, they show them.

Looking back

an image of da Vinci's notes and designs for a flying machine, made circa 1488
Leonardo da Vinci's Flying Machine c.1488

Possibly the most famous person in history to bring art and science together is Leonardo da Vinci.

It is thought that da Vinci’s creativity and artistic imagination are what led to his inventions and discoveries, though his flying machine was not built for another 500 years.

Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings have been exhibited as both works of science and works of art.

His scientific curiosity benefited from his creative skill as an artist, allowing him to record his observations in meticulous detail.

Since da Vinci, artists have been used primarily to document science as it happens.

Painter William Hodges accompanied Captain Cook to Antarctica to capture the seascapes, and Edward Wilson’s watercolours documented Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.

Photography was not considered an art in its early days in the 19th century, as it was often used by archaeologists and botanists to capture details that could not be defined by drawings.

Photographs were used to document these specimens for study by scientists further afield.

Present day Science/Art Collaborations

The art of photography is possibly one of the most ubiquitous ways that art has infiltrated science.

Take, for example, publications such as National Geographic, which is renowned for the eye-catching images they use on the cover and throughout the magazine.

Photography plays a vital role in scientific discovery, and there have been an abundance of art exhibitions all over the world showcasing the impact photography has had in science.

From photography came film, and from film came animation.

In 2017, Sara ElShafie, a PhD student at University of California, Berkeley collaborated with animators from Pixar studios to develop a series of workshops and seminars training scientists in how to tell their research story.

Her work has been so successful that she was asked to develop a symposium at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s 2018 Annual Meeting earlier this year.

ElShafie’s symposium attracted more than scientists, bringing in educators, marketers, and even park rangers.

“It has never been more critical for scientists to be able to explain science to the public effectively, and the backbone of all communication is a story. Story training benefits scientists because it helps us to communicate in a clear and compelling way.” - ElShafie

ElShafie chose Pixar because many of their movies do not use humans as the central characters, but they still have the emotional depth and compelling storylines that appeals to a broad audience.

The workshops intend to teach scientists how to communicate their research as a story with characters, obstacles, and revelations; making the science more accessible to the public, board directors, and investors.

Looking forward

The emerging trend of storytelling in science communication can be strengthened by working with artists.

After all, art and science have a great deal in common. They both seek to discover and share an understanding of the world we live in.

Though science relies on logical methodology to produce reliable data, creativity sits at the core of forming a hypothesis and designing the experiment to prove it.

Science and art collide on a regular basis, each informing (dare I say improving?) the other.

In 2020, a new modern art gallery will open in Melbourne, the Science Gallery, a space designed to engage 15-25 year olds with science.

Here at Orangepeel, we look forward to seeing more art/science collisions and hope scientists continue to use art to engage with the public.

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