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4 Portals on the Web Science-Art Competitions and a Celebration of Indeterminacy In 2010, New Scientist magazine ran a blog called “Art Meets Science,” featuring the perspectives of artists and scientists on the potential benefits of blending the two fields. The pieces in the series engage C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture implicitly or explicitly as they attempt to justify aesthetic interventions into scientific discourse, particularly for the purposes of communicating with nonexpert audiences. One piece in the series looks at the possibility of an emerging third culture, brought on by digital communication. The writer of the piece, Stephen Wilson, director of the Conceptual Information Arts program at San Francisco State University, argued that “better information dissemination has popularised science and humanities for non-specialists” and that a digital third culture “might be emerging to heal the rift between sciences and the arts.”1 The emergence of digital culture has led to new trends in science communication with nonexpert publics. A piece in the journal Science titled “Science Communication Requires Time, Trust, and Twitter” attests to the shifts in mode of address as well as in audience expectations. In the article, Elizabeth Landau, a writer and producer for, explained that visual communication is “almost as important as the headline, sometimes even more so” in selling science stories.2 The New York Times science reporter James Gorman has argued that replacing “boring” interviews with captivating images “might help to raise public awareness of the importance of the work.”3 Public support is essential to the funding of basic scientific research. Reliance on the visual to secure public support, however, is not without its complications, especially in a digital environment . Previously, images were considered that were used as portals into scientific discourse but that were not necessarily “scientific.” Frontispieces in early 74 • Introducing Science through Images modern natural philosophy books, for example, often featured mythological characters and symbols, whereas the interior pages of such books featured technical drawings. Portraits of scientists working in the laboratory often showcased complex scientific equipment, but these images would not have appeared in scientific journals. Last, popular science magazine covers tend to feature stylized, fictional content, as opposed to scientific visualizations. Scientific visualizations that have been aestheticized for public consumption are of interest here. There are differing perspectives on the role that art ought to play in scientific discourse, as evidenced by the New Scientist blog series “Art Meets Science.” For example, on one hand, an art curator argued that art is valuable to science because “People often find it easier to connect on a purely aesthetic level. There is something about beauty—not only conventional beauty, but also ugly beauty—that can be arresting enough to make you absorb things in a different way.”4 On the other hand, a physicist cautioned, “In an art-science collaboration, it is important that the artist does not impose a view on the science.”5 One of the most notable pieces in the series is an interview with University of Oxford art historian Martin Kemp, who explained how art and science became severed in the nineteenth century when there was a drive to define them as “separate professional entities.”6 A benefit that can arise from reuniting the two cultures, Kemp suggested, is that artists (and, presumably, those who view their work) will see that “science is deeply imaginative, social, partial and extraordinary.”7 New Scientist’s series is illuminating because of the range of perspectives it represents , but there is one perspective that is particularly troubling. Without leaving any grey area, the writer and artist Jonathon Keats opined, “Good scientists demystify the world in which we live, whereas good artists engage the sciences meaningfully by means of remystification.”8 Sadly, it is this perspective that seems to win out in terms of how popular science images are circulated in digital culture. The mystification of science can occur through aesthetically pleasing and indeterminate images that travel online without sufficient contextualization . In particular, one sees this in the emergence of the twenty-first-century science-art competition. The first competition under scrutiny is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) annual visualization competition. Since 2003, the NSF has been soliciting visually stunning submissions from scientists and scientist/artist collaborations .9 The NSF’s mission statement for the competition takes an optimistic view of the capacity of popular science images to engage and inform nonexpert public audiences; the mission statement describes the competition images as if they...


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