Science tarot

A whimsical deck of cards shuffles the worlds of logic and mythology

Roberta Kwok
Oct 7, 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.
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