Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Crane fly headToday, two different stories about scientific photography. Here's my contribution, the front of a crane fly from Kansas.

From the onomatopoetic BoingBoing, an exhibit of astronomical photographs juxtaposed with a Louise Bourgeois exhibit. The astronomical photos are from the Anglo-Australian Observatory, via David Malin. Incredible stuff, and I wish I knew more.

From the incomparable Carl Zimmer, a story in the New York Times about Joseph Scheer, an artist who – with help from professional entomologists – is taking high quality scans of moths from around the world. From there, Zimmer launches into a fascinating exploration of the importance of careful illustration to science. He points out that natural history, and therefore biology more broadly, could only proceed as a science when biological illustrators “began to pay careful attention to animals and plants as they really were, not as they had been traditionally drawn.” Having said it, this is obvious, but it never occurred to me before.

He points out great artists like Albrecht Dürer whose commitment to accuracy transformed both art and science. The other thread he traces ties the artistic advances and the biological lessons learned to advances in the technology for reproducing the drawings. He talks about a coffee table book illustrating the giant water lily, but just think about Audubon's work. In an earlier era, nothing like a series of life-sized color illustrations of birds would even have been imagined. Today's birders rightly revere Audubon. Peterson's field guides built on that same tradition.

I don't know what the line is between art and science. I think it's a shame that Zimmer starts off by setting up an opposition between artists and scientists. He blows that line away pretty fast, but I don't think it was there to begin with.

Green moth on a green leafI could use either of my photos here in a classroom, but I could just as easily frame them and put them in a gallery. The line between art and science may be getting brighter in recent times. Peterson's guides made biological illustrations a commodity, while – for technical reasons – Audubon had to treat his giant prints as art. I wonder if that's why Scheer makes 3 foot by 4 foot prints – to make his images clearly impractical as objects and difficult to produce.

In a different era, a writer like Goethe would write treatises on color and light while waiting for his latest opera to open. Many of the great minds of the Enlightenment felt obligated, as scientists, to be skilled musicians and painters, and politics was an essential part of being an intellectual.

What happened? If I re-read Weber's “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” would I learn? I remember him arguing that the natural progression is for scientists to become more specialized, making genuinely broad thinkers unable to operate in any field. That doesn't seem to preclude being an international relations specialist and a painter, nor being specialized in mammalian community ecologist and active in community politics. Why do scientists feel like they are only serious if all they do is science?

It seems like it's more than just some self-enforcing code in science. I feel like scientists have allowed themselves to be divided from the rest of society. I don't think it's anti-intellectualism (though there's plenty of that around). I think that scientists have acquired a revered status, which seemed nice at first, but now we are an elevated class. “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small enclosed space” says Gloria Steinem.

Everyone loves dinosaurs and bugs and birds when they're little. Stephen J. Gould liked to point out that most 5 year olds knew more scientific names of dinosaurs than many professional biologists. Somewhere, people lose the idea that it's worth knowing these things, that science is just another thing to do, like watching NASCAR, voting, or doing the laundry. Hunters who know a lot about the biology of deer or turkey or rabbits, don't think of themselves as using science.

I just don't get it.