The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Subjectivity of Science, Crowdsourced

Compared to art, scientific rationale is a string of clear-cut, well-defined arguments and concepts. So why is it, then, that it’s so difficult to define and describe science itself, our understanding of it and the place we see for it in the world?

Science communicator Tim Jones decided to explore the wide spectrum of subjective and diverse interpretations by asking scientists, journalists, students, and other thinkers what science means to them. The result is The Exquisite Corpse of Science, a fascinating worldwide art mosaic that illustrates just how rich, broad and wildly intricate our understanding of the seemingly rigid is.

Daniel Mietchen, Post-doc, University of Jena, Germany
‘This magnetic resonance matrix illustrates the convergence of evolutionary and developmental biology. A frog tadpole gradually develops in the top nine rows, while the last row takes us back 150 million years to ancient squid fossils called belemnites. The single green slice echoes Mietchen’s displeasure with the failure of the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, as well as the Twitter practice of adjusting avatars to reflect one’s interests and allegiance.’

From a Kenyan pharmacologist to a British silversmith to a nanotechnology expert, the drawings range from the meticulously detailed to the artistically abstract, from wide-eyed wonder to grim apocalypticism.

Erin Conel, Silversmith, UK
‘We are but a speck in the vastness of a galaxy whirl, upon which a tool-wielding raven and a cuttlefish nestle with Huxley’s chalky cocoliths. The plane, sphere, and hyperbolic shapes symbolize Euclidian elliptic and hyperbolic geometries. Euler’s Identity represents the beauty of simple statements, while the coffee and donut equation signifies this former finance analyst’s favorite branch of math—topology. The native California bee represents concerns around invasive species. Conel’s new profession gets nods with the phase diagram and the periodic table. At the core is a six-point guide to the scientific method.’
Nyokabi Musila, Pharmacologist, Kenya and UK
‘Science is about understanding our inner selves, the external environment, and the systems that affect us. The amoeba and atomic swirl represent microscopic systems too small to study with the naked eye, while electrons remind us of planets orbiting in the solar system. The multi-dimensional eye moves, flexes, and experiments to test new ideas—ideas that force us to recognize we are part of something greater.’

The project reminds us of Kevin Kelly’s effort to crowdsource something equally widespread yet equally subjectively understood in The Internet Mapping Project. And it bespeaks the seemingly obvious but surprisingly poorly honored idea, not far from Buddhist philosophy, that our experience of the world amounts not to the facts and tangibles of our circumstances but to our highly subjective and personal interpretation of them.

Jörg Heber, Nature Materials Senior Editor, UK
‘Less is more in Joerg Heber’s sketch of two people sharing the same thought bubble. Heber, a senior editor at the journal Nature Materials, emailed his picture within five minutes of the project’s launch on Twitter—making it entry number one. Given the speed of production, it’s probably also the closest to the spontaneity of the original Exquisite Corpse. Echoing some other artists’ thoughts about interdisciplinary work, Heber says his drawing represents collaboration.’

Our favorite — not necessarily aesthetically, but rather conceptually — is the one by Jones himself, which stresses the crucial role of interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-cultural empathy not only in our definition of science itself, but also in resolving difficult issues like reconciling human activity with environmental preservation.

Tim Jones, Science Communicator, UK
‘As someone whose purpose is to understand and influence the world, it makes sense that Tim Jones’ avatar would carry the tools to counter famine and disease. Science, cross-cultural empathy, and interdisciplinary collaboration can help resolve conflicts such as those between wildlife preservation and human activity (symbolized by the gibbon framed against the palm oil plant), evidence-based knowledge and policymaking (the glass-enclosed leaf), and religion and science education (the split half-circle containing symbols). Feynman’s illustration of quantum electrodynamics reminds us of discoveries ahead.’

See the full slideshow over at the always-wonderful SEED Magazine as you contemplate the strokes and smudges of your own subjective conception.

Published December 15, 2009




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