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  • Bridging Science, Art, and the History of Visualization:A Dialogue between Scott Curtis and Robert Lue
  • Scott Curtis (bio) and Robert Lue (bio)

Scientific visualization has taken many forms through the centuries, but since the digital age, and as computer-generated imagery (CGI) becomes relatively easier to access, produce, and distribute, animation has been an especially popular choice for scientists eager to communicate theories and findings to their colleagues, students, and the public. Animation has always been a viable choice for scientific instruction and popularization—recall, for example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1923) and Evolution (1923), both by Fleischer Studios—but the relationship between animation and science has also been an anxious one. In addition to potentially infecting scientific endeavor with the taint of popular culture, animation threatened to mislead the untrained eye by giving an abstracted yet simplified understanding of the processes depicted. Indeed, the latter concern has also plagued the use of drawn figures in twentieth-century scientific illustration, as we shall see. So, accuracy and sobriety have always been high priorities for scientists involved in scientific animation. As CGI increasingly adapts the conventions of animation to scientific illustration, the histories and tensions between them entwine in interesting ways. Harvard’s BioVisions films provide excellent examples through which to explore these [End Page 193] histories and tensions, so cell biologist Robert Lue and film historian Scott Curtis set out to discuss the implications of these films for scientific visualization, past and present.

The BioVisions initiative at Harvard University was founded by Robert Lue and Alain Viel, who are both faculty members in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. It is an educational program that seeks to bring different visualization strategies to the teaching and broader communication of biological processes and concepts. Research in biology often depends on the development of new ways of visualizing important processes and molecules. Indeed, the very act of observing and recording data lies at the foundation of all the natural sciences. The same holds true for the teaching and communication of scientific ideas; to see is to begin to understand. The continuing quest for new and more powerful ways to communicate ideas in biology is the focus of BioVisions.

The potential of multimedia in the area of biology education has yet to be fulfilled. Indeed, multimedia as a means of imparting biological information is years behind its use in other areas such as entertainment and interactive games. BioVisions is meant to close this gap by combining the highest-quality multimedia development with rigorous scientific models of how biological processes occur. In addition, this new generation of science visualizations is not meant to simply be simulations or mirrors held up to reality; rather, the visualizations are designed with a specific pedagogical goal in mind. This means that each decision made on how to represent a given biological process also includes consideration of how best to visually communicate particular aspects of that process. In this regard, these practices integrate visual pedagogy with the narrative and emotive elements of filmmaking.

In 2007 the first BioVisions visualization, The Inner Life of the Cell, was released and promptly went viral on YouTube. It is an eight-minute animation that explores the structural organization of cells as well as protein translation and secretion. The Inner Life of the Cell series remains one of the most viewed science animations in history. For example, on average the first animation is viewed over 200,000 times per month on YouTube. Based on a survey of 1,000 randomly selected public high schools across America, 83 percent regularly use the animation in a biology course.

The Inner Life of the Cell has received numerous national and international accolades, including a Telly award, honoring video and film production. As a further indication of the crossover between science visualization and art, the animation has been [End Page 194] shown at a number of museums across the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C., and the Palais de la Decouverte in Paris, France. It has even been described as bringing artistic notions of landscape representation to...


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pp. 193-206
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