The archetypal scientist-artist, Leonardo da Vinci, implored his contemporaries to “study the science of art and the art of science.” Princeton University’s scientists and engineers have taken the Renaissance master’s plea to heart and produced a new set of beautiful, scientifically derived works of art.
Princeton’s 6th annual “Art of Science” exhibition elicited 170 submissions from 24 of the Ivy League schools’ departments. The 44 images chosen for the exhibit (8 of which are shown above) are mostly collaborative works by Princeton undergraduates, faculty, staff, graduate students, and alumni. According to the exhibition’s organizers, art and science both “involve the pursuit of those moments of discovery when what is perceived suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts.”
For many of the exhibitor’s, artistic inspiration struck mid-experiment. Such was the case for bioengineers Jamie Barr and Cliff Brangwynne, who’s piece “Medusa” depicts a pile of nearly microscopic worms (C. elegans) curled up on top of each other. “When I looked at my sample under the microscope it was shocking,” Barr remembers of a late night in the lab, where she was working on a new imaging protocol to understand how signaling molecules determine cell and organism size. “The worms were sticking in clumps, but the images were exciting.”
Another of the selected entries, “C. instagram”, depicts an impromptu moment where, again, the natural beauty of C. elegans suddenly sent a scientist in search of a camera—in this case the camera in her phone. When molecular biologist Meredith Wright saw the worms she was studying clump together after running out of food, she whipped her phone out of her pocket. “I held it right up to the microscope eyepiece and took a photo,” she says. “A quick Instagram filter later, and I had my image.” After sharing the image with the world, some of Wright’s non-biologist friends, many of whom had never heard of C. elegans, told her they wanted to know more about the model organism.
Molecular biologist Estaban Engel, co-creator of “Brainbow rainbow,” appreciates the randomness underlying his piece—a micrograph of neurons made to fluoresce in a rainbow of colors, allowing the scientist to trace neural circuits. Like many of the other scientists who contributed to the exhibition, Engel equates science with a form of art, saying “[Science] requires technical skill and it is a process of creating something new where you cannot always predict the outcome.”
Molecular biologist Anthony Ambrosini also sees value in the unexpected. “Scientists seem to have a knack for finding the thing they're not looking for,” says Ambrosini, who, along with Lynn Enquist, created “The mystery of mad itch,” which reveals glowing red glycoproteins coating the surface of pig kidney cells. Ambrosini adds that he sees science as the art of storytelling and that he wants his image “to communicate an idea clearly and, hopefully, elegantly.”
Neuroscientists Barry Jacobs and Casimir Fornal, also value the storytelling potential of their work. Their image, “Starry, starry night”, which shows astrocytes (“astro” is Greek for star) within the hippocampus of a mouse, references the masterpiece “The Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh both in name and aesthetics. According to the researchers, when the hippocampus malfunctions, the brain area can contribute to depression, which may have ultimately led to Van Gogh’s suicide.
Other contributors focused on the simplicity and beauty inherent in the study of the natural world. Electrical engineer Siran Li, co-creator of “Worm water slide,” says: “The best experiments should use a simple but elegant design. Simple but elegant is also one of the common focuses of art.” Li’s piece, also involving C. elegans, depicts a 16-chambered device for studying the tiny worms’ behavior in a fluid environment. The elegance and simplicity of the device, built in the lab of Coleen Murphy, comes from the fact that its symmetric design allows each worm to experience the same conditions and flow rate as the other worms.
“Light eddies,” by electrical engineers Mitchell Nahmia and Paul Prucnal, represents the output of a computer model visualization of laser beam trajectories that are meant to mimic neural communication patterns. Nahmia revels in the simplicity of the piece’s creation. “It is amazing to me that complex, intricate, and beautiful geometrical structures could emerge from so little,” he says. “The formulas governing the system can be written in three lines; the behavior of the system, however, is so complex that [our] piece captures only a fraction of its full range of possibilities.”
“Many scientists work under the principle that beauty and simplicity often underlie phenomena in nature,” says biophysicist Joshua Shaevitz. His work, “The history of gliding,” which he produced with Mingzhai Sun, as well as Filiz Bunyak and Kannappan Palaniappan of the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a dazzling array of colorful filaments made by tracking the paths of hundreds of thousands of the social bacterium Myxococcus xanthus. “The process of scientific research often seems dull from the outside, but on the inside there are stunningly beautiful elements to all aspects of nature,” says Shaevitz.