Understanding Science with Art

A study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that investigates the different regions of the brain that are activated when looking at art. The study investigated, among other things, the question of whether or not humans have evolved to like art and if that “like” is similar in all people. One thing the study revealed was that “the aesthetic experience is highly individual” with different viewers reacting in very different ways to the same piece of art. This information meshes perfectly with what I know about art and neuroscience, however, I am the first to admit that I don’t know a lot. While humans may be one of the few inhabitants of earth, we know of, that make and react to art, their reactions and preferences exist along a wide rollercoaster track influenced by many things such as culture, education and personal experience.

That is why I don’t get upset anymore when people don’t like my art. My art isn’t for everyone and that’s ok. I may be a bit desensitized by being a woman online who has seen a lot of negativity but I’m not seeking approval from outside forces. Much like with the study mentioned above, I am seeking understanding in my own journey through experience. I use the quiet contemplative moments spent working on a painting or a ceramic art piece to help me better understand the world and the nature in it that I witness and move through in my own life.

In the words of Andy Warhol, “A painting is done when the check clears.” In my world, a painting is done when I make peace with it and when it makes sense to me. When I can look upon it and feel good about it. When nothing bothers me or confuses me anymore – then I can let it go. And sometimes that process can be a difficult one. Particularly, with the current work I am doing, where I work with scientists and science communicators to express often complex ideas visually.

Case in point: Bioluminescence.

This was a topic that was completely new to me and in order to understand it better I enlisted the help of a brilliant scientist who is currently using bioluminescence in the lab in the search for new antibiotics, Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

It took two paintings for me to get to a point where aesthetically and intellectually I was able to say, ok this is good. This is complete. I get it now. The first piece was simple. It expressed the basic facts about bioluminescence by focussing on one individual creature that possessed the ability to emit light in the ocean, the Crystal Jelly Fish. It was 16″ x 20″ and acrylic on canvas.

I posted about this on my Patreon and I quoted Dr Wiles:

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that produces light. Fluorescence is very different – its when light is emitted by a protein. Basically the protein gets ‘excited’ by light of a particular wavelength. Electrons move out of their orbits, and when they return, they cause the protein to emit light of a different wavelength. Jellyfish have probably the most famous example of a fluorescent protein – green fluorescent protein or GFP. This is a protein that emits green light when excited with blue light. Jellyfish also produce a luciferase/luciferin system which most likely produces the light that excites GFP to produce its green light.

bioluminescence = a chemical reaction (no ‘excitation’ required)
fluorescence = light produced by a protein when ‘excited’ by light of the correct wavelength

A fundamental difference between the two is that bioluminescence requires the organism to be alive, as it requires energy – ATP or FMNH2. Dead things can still fluoresce as fluorescence doesn’t require energy, just the fluorescent protein, so a dead creature can fluoresce until the fluorescent protein has naturally degraded. This makes a huge difference to my work – we use bioluminescence to measure in real time whether our bacteria are dead or alive, where as we use fluorescent proteins for microscopy to find out where our bacteria are on tissue samples that have been fixed with nasty chemicals, which kill the bacteria.

Here is that first painting:
jelly small

And here is a fun gif I made of it glowing in the dark:

The problem was, I wasn’t satisfied at that point in time. I felt like I needed to do more work to understand how bioluminescent was being used in a scientific setting, and I felt like I needed to express the beauty of it all in a bigger way. So I painted another piece.

The second painting was called, “Thinking About Bioluminescent Research.” It was bigger. It was 3 feet by 4 feet. It was acrylic on canvas. It took more time.

Thinking About Bioluminescent Research SMALL

(Some of the following text was taken from my original post on Patreon.)
This painting is a bit more surreal than the first painting on bioluminescence so I will do my best to explain the symbolism. My opinion, and it seems to mesh with the neuroscience related research, is that people should feel free to find their own meaning in art so do take what information you like and add your own interpretations.

First of all, the text on the side reads:
Bioluminescence is being
used in research in
the search for new
antibiotics and cures
for illness. A
virus is a living
organism and
can be made to
glow. If the virus dies, it
stops glowing.
If it spreads
it creates more
of a glow. This
allows researchers
to judge and track
the effectiveness
of new treatments
and drugs in the
lab. It hopefully
allows for more
humane treatment
of lab mice, as a
virus can be detected
and treated even
before symptoms
reveal themselves.
The glow
will show
first, giving
a head
start on
off the
lights of
what threatens
us all.

And here is an edit that I also added to my original post on Patreon: A note for accuracy. Dr Wiles corrected one mistake in my text, she works on bacteria not viruses. The technique using bioluminescence works for viruses too so that’s still correct but antibiotics only kill bacteria not viruses. Her research is specifically to find antibiotics to kill bacteria. Thank you Dr Wiles for that correction. I’m always learning.

I painted this as a beach scene because bioluminescence was first discovered and understood by studying ocean creatures like in my previous painting subject, The Crystal Jellyfish. When I polled people on my Facebook about what are people’s favorite examples of bioluminescence, a large majority mentioned the phenomenon of glowing ocean waves. This is often caused when dinoflagellates are exited and their bioluminescence is displayed. I was happy to include this as a backdrop since I grew up on the beach and it is an image that plays an important role, not only in scientific research but as symbolism for my place in the world.

I spent a long time trying to decide if the beach should be empty or should have anything on it. I settled on an open empty, untouched beach as a symbol of the unknowns in this research and that of possibility, stretched far out into the future. It can also serve as testimony to the idea that if we do not find new antibiotics, there may indeed be less human life on this earth, therefor less footprints on the beach.

I chose the white mouse in the foreground to witness the scene because so much depends on mice in laboratories. They are indeed witness to what happens. Personally, I have ethical issues with the idea of animals being used to test things on, but at least this work presents a more humane approach to dealing with our little furry friends and for that I am grateful. The mouse looks upon the flowers that represent a life cycle. The life cycle of the flower parallels the temporary nature of our human existence and that of the mouse and of the bioluminescent research. Everything is temporary. This further emphasizes the rush to find cures to protect that fragility that is life on this planet.

I often paint black birds in the distance as symbols of hope, wisdom, courage and the passage of time.

The sun is setting in this image. Another emphasis on time running out.

When the lights go off, the waves near the beach glow, as does the flower when it is alive, and the mouse.

I believe that we humans are often looking for patterns in nature and we have learned to use things like art and music, that also utilize and make sense of patterns and repetition, to help us better understand and make peace with the world around us. Making art about science helps me to understand the complex concepts life tosses my way. My art is a study that I make public for the world to see. A notebook with images. My hope is that maybe a few people will actually like my work, and that a few more will learn something from it, and even more will find a moment of peaceful contemplation when they see it.

You can help me with this art and science project by pledging to my Patreon. Every dollar helps and your support allows me to continue to make art that is informed by science.

EDIT 8/22/15: If you are interested you can now purchase signed prints of this design from my Etsy shop.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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One Comment

  1. A lovely sentiment, Amy. I was nearly was as dead as that flower, coming about as close to death as possible without actually dying. What nearly killed me was a bacterium–legionella. Antibiotics saved my life (plus dialysis and a respirator, to treat the organ failure caused by the sepsis). I loved science even before it saved my life. Maybe it’s that love of science and learning that makes me like your art so much–it’s two great tastes in one!

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