A whimsical deck of cards shuffles the worlds of logic and mythology
By Roberta Kwok | October 8, 2010
On a Thursday night in San Francisco, three elaborately costumed women sit in a lively hall giving tarot readings. One wears ornamental snakes in her hair, and another sports a headdress with oversized purple eyeballs. This isn't your everyday divinatory gathering -- they're at the California Academy of Sciences, surrounded by glass cases of stuffed antelopes and lions. And instead of knights and kings, their cards display images of mitochondria, neurotransmitters, and Darwin.
The Science Tarot deck Image: Logan Austeja Daniel
This unusual scene is the launch party of Science Tarot, a collaboration between science communicators, artists, and other creative thinkers who have produced a science-inspired deck of tarot cards. The team has reimagined each traditional card as a scientific concept, using images ranging from bacteria to black holes. While some people are dubious about the idea, others say the project could encourage interest in science and even act as an educational tool.
"I want to get science out in the world in a friendly way, so people who don't necessarily have a relationship to science realize that it's part of their lives," says co-creator Raven Hanna, a San Francisco-based science communicator with a PhD in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
The project began in 2003 when Hanna was brainstorming ideas for an art installation with Logan Austeja Daniel, a landscape and sound designer, and Martin Azevedo, a writer, filmmaker, and tarot fan who works in biotechnology. They realized "there was not a science tarot deck in the world, and there really should be one," recalls Hanna. With other artists, the team created 22 cards on poster-sized boards and presented them at Burning Man, an annual gathering in the Nevada desert. The cards showed figures such as the Magician, represented by the ribosome, and the Fool, a lab coat-carrying student about to walk off a cliff of books.
The three enjoyed the project so much that they decided to develop an entire 78-card deck -- this time of normal size -- and recruited more artists to illustrate the scientific concepts. For example, the five of pentacles traditionally suggests a catastrophic event, sometimes accompanied by a hopeful element. The Science Tarot team depicted this idea with cyanobacteria releasing oxygen, killing off other organisms but allowing more complex life forms to emerge. For the ace of cups, which shows a new relationship, they chose endosymbiosis: a bacterium being swallowed by another cell and becoming a mitochondrion.
The Five of Pentacles Copyright 2010 by Science Tarot Artwork by Kristy Whitehouse
"We used that to symbolize the beginning of the path of love because you are literally opening your heart to another person," explains Azevedo. Other cards draw on concepts from astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, and math.
Along the way, the team consulted scientists to ensure accuracy. One was Stanford University ecologist Deborah M. Gordon, who helped clarify the idea of emergent properties -- those that can't be explained by the behavior of individual parts -- in ant colonies. "I think they were thinking very seriously about what emergence means, and I like the result," a card that depicts a set of ants forming the shape of a larger ant, says Gordon. Some of the five artists that worked on the Science Tarot deck also have scientific training: one majored in biology, and another is a chemist.
Science Tarot has been winning fans among the science-minded. "I love the idea of science trying to claim a realm that has previously been almost anti-scientific," says Tucker Hiatt, director of the Bay Area science festival Wonderfest and a board member of the Bay Area Skeptics. Science teachers could use the cards to explain concepts to students, says Yannick Pouliot, a bioinformatician at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "You have to have some kind of emotional attractor to keep people's attention, and beautiful art can do that."
But Michael Portuesi, a software developer and volunteer science educator for the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, worries that a science-themed deck may lend legitimacy to practices such as tarot reading and fortune-telling. "Somebody who's not familiar with what science is all about is going to get the wrong idea," says Portuesi, who has viewed the cards online.
The project has also attracted attention from the tarot community: John Marani, a professional tarot reader in Occoquan, Virginia, plans to try the deck with his clients and suggests it could encourage skeptics to take an interest in tarot readings. "They can see these are universal messages, but they're based on science," he says.
The Science Tarot creators emphasize that they do not believe the cards have prophetic powers. "Our purpose was to explore science stories," says co-creator Daniel, although she notes that others may use the cards differently. And Hanna says the deck may actually catalyze discussion between people with different views. "Responses from tarot people were 'Great, I'm going to buy a deck for my scientist uncle,'" she says. "And the scientists would say, 'This is something I can get for my tarot-enthusiast sister.'"
There is a "rumor" that more Science Tarot readings will be dispensed at the California Academy of Sciences at the end of this month, and interested parties should check back at the Academy's website to confirm, says Daniel. Meanwhile, the deck is available for sale at the Science Tarot website, and the team plans to release an iPhone application next year.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Darwin's minstrel;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56158/ [20th November 2009]*linkurl:The art of alchemy;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53274/ [8th June 2007]*linkurl:Say it with molecules;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/50696/ [9th February 2007]
The cards themselves are beautiful. However in an educational setting, I can't see them as being useful and may even be counter productive. It is well intentioned and quite beautiful but I fear misguided and might actually do some harm to public education and cultural diversity. I also find the posthumous appropriation of Carl Sagan's image into a divinatory Tarot deck to be in questionable taste as the author of The Demon Haunted World would have nothing to do with the practice of Tarot card reading nor would he sympathize with the anti-intellectual world view of it's promoters. Another big objection I have to this Tarot deck is the common myth it promotes that the Tarot was intended for divination. The Tarot was actually made for card games.\n\nAs a skeptic of the paranormal and as a player of classic games including card games played with Tarot, I am disappointed that the Science Tarot website makes no mention of the fact that the Tarot was originally created for a type of trick taking card game still played in European countries such as France. I wish the deck creators did a better job of educating people about the Tarot itself and of its role in games instead of misleading the public into believing there is no other use of Tarot cards besides divination. It's difficult to educate people about actual games played with Tarot when our educational institutions continue to typecast this cultural artifact and deny the existence of any Tarot culture apart from divination.\n\nI am usually in favor of public education having projects about Tarot cards but instead of always pandering to the interests of the "new age" population, they should have more respect for history and they should better promote cultural diversity by informing the public about how Tarot cards are also used in actual games.\n
These cards are a unique science collectible, but the artwork is an appealing feature as well. The thought, time, and craft required to create the cards highlights what art and handmade can be, and how it can be used to spread scientific ideas.\n\nI pre-ordered a deck having found out about it via a crafting group of scientists a couple weeks ago - the approach here of course is more on the science aspect of the cards, but I was originally drawn in by the art, which was done by people with whom I am indirectly acquainted. Tarot is just a format - if you can't see past the format then you aren't seeing the true aspects and meaning of the deck.
I have found that divination methods such as Tarot and Runecasting actually can be very helpful in making complex decisions. Not that the Tarot or Runes have any magical powers beyond those inherent in the human mind, but by presenting certain universals, they help to focus the mind of the subject on the matter at hand. The mind is encouraged to examine aspects of the problem for which insight is being sought, and it is no mystery that such examination can be helpful and can focus the subject's mind on solutions. Drawing the 5 of Pentangles after having suffered some apparently devastating loss could focus the subject on the aspect of hope and by giving hope, encourage action rather than despair and depression. At some later date, the Tarot has appeared to have worked. Life and consciousness are, themselves, magical and wondrous.
I hope the Science Tarot will do more than 'introduce' science to a lay public. I hope it will help introduce more scientists to the mystery of being and consciousness. The hostility some have expressed here to the idea that the Tarot itself would have anything to teach us signals an unhealthy imbalance between rational and non-rational ways of perceiving and thinking.\n\nThe universe is mystery. We need to use both our rational and non-rational capacities in order to begin to make sense of it.
As a Tarot player, I am an advocate of the use of the Tarot in public education in an unbiased manner and my criticism of this project is because it is culturally biased in favor of American "new age" sensibilities and it fosters myths about culture and history. It is a myth that Tarot was created for divination. The Tarot was made for games. Tarot images reflect the times and places in which they are created and are good for learning about European history and geography. The traditional Tarot images of decks such as the Visconti-Sforza decks reflect the history of the Italian Renaissance and are well-suited for history courses on this topic. In France, where it is understood that Tarot is a card game and where there is a French Federation of Tarot (Fédération Française de Tarot), young students actually make their own Tarot de Marseilles decks as an arts and crafts project. However any teacher here in the States who attempts to use Tarot cards for such educational purposes is involved in controversy because of the limited view of Tarot promoted by the popular media and by many metaphysical publishers. Projects such as this Science Tarot are counter productive to education because they promote myths which are harmful to the Tarot being used in academic settings.
Tales of magic are just a way to express our appreciation for the wonder of ordinary life. A building is raised by the power of the magic wand, because it is a measuring stick. A mystic calls on the power of the runes and the voices of the dead speak through her, because they are letters. And lawful divination by Tarot and Yì Jīng is simply a good use of game theory, using random numbers to explore all options unpredictably.\n\nIt is worth pursuing the potential of such systems as an "invention machine", in which all the possibilities of life are divided into some number of basic concepts, any one of which may be chosen at random to consider in depth. While the proper selection of ideas is essential for success, it would be interesting to see whether such schemes can be used to prod the creativity of inventors in new directions.
\n As a Tarot reader, I view traditional Tarot as a symbolic repository of incomplete projects and modes of believing somewhat inadequate for 21st century life. However, I accept this newly created Science Tarot as bringing completeness and adequacy to the content in this symbolic repository; and I accept this to mean an opportunity to foreground modes of scientific inquiry in an area previously restricted to the interplay of more archaic imagery. Yet, I fear the scientistic tea partiers: ?? Michael Portuesi, ? volunteer science educator for the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, worries that a science-themed deck may lend legitimacy to practices such as tarot reading and fortune-telling.? Hence, unless it is suppressed, I believe this new version of Tarot will stimulate creative thinking in those playing around with these cards as well as function as a counseling tool in the hands of competent practitioners to stimulate creative scientific thinking?`Our purpose was to explore science stories,? says co-creator Daniel, although she notes that others may use the cards differently. And Hanna says the deck may actually catalyze discussion between people with different views.? \n\n
The traditional tarot is really a card game and not tarot card reading. The first tarot decks appeared in Italy during the 1400s and they were used for games. It wasn't until the 1700's we have any evidence of tarot being used for tarot card reading. What is really being suppressed in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom is the fact that tarot cards are also used in certain card games played mostly in continental Europe. The occult tarot which has only appeared since the 18th century has been criticized not only for its superstition but also for cultural thievery. The occult tarot has been called by tarot historians like Michael Dummett the most successful propaganda campaign ever conducted where a completely false history and interpretation of tarot cards is all but universally believed. This Science Tarot should be criticized for endorsing this occult tarot propaganda of superstition and cultural theft.
Human perception is limited, more so if only defined by the rational mind and what our physical senses can tell us. Balancing the rational mind with the intuitive makes more sense. These cards represent a beautiful balance of the two.\n\n\n"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.? ~ Albert Einstein
Popularization has long been controversial. \n\nI have revered literate scientists whose writing built bridges across C. P. Snow's "two culture" divide. They wrote for an intelligent but inexpert public who could become informed, if not expert themselves. It was a great gift, well received and cherished by "humanists."\n\nI am, however, never quite sure about "educators" who find ways to make science "fun," but trivialize it in the process. \n\nAnd I have keenly disapproved of scientific elitists, who prefer to think of themselves as a sort of secular priesthood, glorying in their self-imposed obscurity and disdainful of anyone with primarily aesthetic, philosophical or vaguely "humanistic" interests ... except, of course, for unreconstructed logical positivists.\n\nWhat sort of endeavor is Tarot Science?\n\nIt plainly falls somewhere within the second category, but is it an attention-getter and an incentive to learn more about "real" science, or is it a momentary (and possibly lucrative) distraction?\n\nAs someone who is preternaturally suspicious about everything "spiritual," "supernatural" and or carrying the smell of the "New Age" or the "Occult," I am pleased to learn that Tarot Cards are no more infused with transcendental or magical qualities than any 52-card deck now in play in Las Vegas. At the same time, I wonder what genuine value can be won by seeking (even symbolically) to combine (or confuse) the mystical with the empirical.\n\nIn the early 1950s, computer pioneer O. K. Moore wrote persuasively about the way in which starving Indians in Quebec were able to "divine" the location of game (by burning a bone in a fire and following in the direction of the first crack); of course, their explanation had to do with the newly released "soul" of the caribou seeking the company of its herd, whereas Moore more plausibly claimed that what was really happening was that the hunters were unconsciously "randomizing" \ntheir search, thus providing a better chance of success than sticking to past (unsuccessful) practices. \n\nThat's as close as I want to come to such mythology.\n\nOf course, the sociologist C. Wright Mills, may also have had something when he explained his method of coming up with a new hypothesis. He would take drawers of file-cards (remember them?), which has been meticulously filled in with various concepts, bits of data and the like, and toss them into the air. He'd then (again randomly) pick them up until two of three of them came together to suggest a connection he hadn't considered before.\n\nMagic? Or, serendipity by the use of a "virtual" table of random numbers and the application of the laws of mathematical probability?\n\nNo contest!