restricted access Design in Motion: Introducing Science/Animation
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Design in Motion:
Introducing Science/Animation

As the joined yet distinct terms in our title indicate, this special issue seeks to foster dialogue across boundaries that often keep the fields, disciplines, and practices of science and animation separate. The walls that separate scholars from makers and theorists from practitioners, that divide work in fields such as film studies and science studies from each other, and that isolate the sciences from the humanities are not respected in the messiness of real life and actual work. While collaboration often goes unrecognized within formal disciplinary or industrial practices, people in these areas depend on the work being done in the others, whether that work serves as the object of research, suggests new ways of imagining (and imaging) the future, or supplies new tools to bring those imaginings into being. We think it is time to create new avenues for revealing and translating the work that is done in these divided but not separate spheres.

And we are not alone in recognizing this crossover. Discussions of visualization in news media and science journals regularly depict the scientist and the artist joined in a common task. Take, for example, a recent guide to visualization techniques published in the journal Nature. Its authors write that “The spectrum of techniques that we briefly survey represents a broad and deep continuum in which scientific and artistic minds can unite to better [End Page 175] engage audiences ranging from peers to students and from grant reviewers to the general public.”1 But the crossover is also indicated in such trends as maker culture, whereby art/science projects regularly traverse multiple spheres, and film festivals, such as New York City’s one-week Imagine Science Film Festival, now in its seventh year.2 Scientific visualizations are ubiquitous throughout our entertainment media landscape as well. Television programs ranging from House M.D. to specials on the National Geographic Channel regularly feature 3-D animations in which the camera penetrates into the body and moves through its interior spaces. Blockbuster films such as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) show bodies disintegrating to their molecular components, and video games such as Nano Assault propel the player through the body’s veins in a chase to eradicate a killer virus.3 Filled with compositions created using digital paintbrushes, these visualizations approximate what a microscope capable of illuminating the 3-D structures and movement of microcellular components might reveal, if only such a machine existed.4 Such visualizations are not confined to the entertainment industries; they are also used for educational purposes, on pharmaceutical companies’ websites to explain how drugs work, in medical apps for tablet computers, and in biology courses to convey understandings of cellular processes.5 Databases of such animations are easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.6

Within newer digital forms of media, scientific animations get sutured seamlessly into live-action imaging, blurring the distinction between what the camera records and what a computer generates. The integration of computer-generated animation techniques into most other forms of media, coupled with many scientists’ reliance on computer modeling as a means of conducting research, has led to an increased blurring of the visual cultures of science and popular media. With the rise of big data as a mechanism for characterizing phenomena whose dimensions exceed human perceptual capabilities, animation has become even more integral to the practice of scientific visualization in the twenty-first century. Many of the resulting “animations” are not perceived as such in any traditional sense; instead, they are part of a complex media ecosystem where distinct separations between photographic, animated, and computational modes of representation cease to exist. These changes provoke questions that have not yet been sufficiently answered: How are computer-generated animations reshaping the practice of scientific research in the digital era? How might theories of animation as a medium inform the conceptual modeling of scientific problems? How do techniques of scientific research generate new methods for imagining and visualizing reality? [End Page 176]

This special issue on science/animation responds to the media convergence that has characterized both the history of animation and its foundational theories. The impossibility of...