By Naomi Beck
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

I’m a biologist, and I view these organisms as puzzles, but when you look at them with different eyes, they become beautiful.”
—Michael LaBarbera

“Look at this picture. You are here, eyeball to eyeball with an animal that has a very different design.”

What looks like an alien landscape is actually part of a scallop. “This is an animal virtually without a brain, with hundreds of eyes, taking in who knows what information,” says Michael LaBarbera, Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. No one knows what the eyes are for. “I’m a biologist,” he says, “and I view these organisms as puzzles, but when you look at them with different eyes, they become beautiful.”

The photograph was one of about 40 pieces chosen for the Science in Art exhibition, which features multimedia art of scientists from the University, Argonne and Fermi national laboratories, as well as local Chicago artists. The exhibition runs through Saturday, Dec. 13 in the third-floor atrium of the Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences.

The Science in Art exhibition includes sculpture, paintings and drawings, photography and videography, music, and digital imaging, ranging from pictures of real cellular features to pieces mixing X-rays, fMRI images, and oil.

LaBarbera likes taking pictures, and he tries to show students the aesthetic value in natural objects. “Aesthetic takes the fear away,” he explains, “and organisms might look even more beautiful when you understand how they work, their ecology, their evolutionary history—the back story that gives them a context.”

Learning Through Beauty

Making science more accessible through art is one of the objectives of Science in Art, which is in its second year.

“Oftentimes science is unapproachable. It is in the lab, and it isn’t easily understandable. We use art to help people approach it,” says Rebecca Ayers, a graduate student in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and founder of Science in Art.

“There are so many misconceptions about science and scientists,” adds Adrianna Zhang, a graduate student and part of this year’s organizing team, “we want to dissolve the myth of scientist in a lab coat.”

Visitors can learn about cutting-edge research and innovation through exhibits that aim to incite a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world and the process of scientific discovery.

“Communicating the results of scientific research to all of society is largely dependent on visual appeal,” says Argonne scientist Bernhard Adams. Nigel Parsad’s eye-catching piece “Mandible Monroe” is a good example. It showcases state-of-the-art medical technology, which is used in three-dimensional representations of the human body for educational, clinical, and scientific purposes. “I wanted to create a true self-portrait of what is inside, not the surface,” he says “and also show how medical imaging has progressed.”

A Source of Innovation

Josh Kurutz, Technical Director of the Biomolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility at the University, observes that when audience members experience art, they connect emotionally with the object of their attention.

“I want them to try to establish the same relationship with data,” he adds. His sound compositions use audio frequency signals to create “audible gene sequences” accompanied by visual NMR data. In one ear, visitors hear the acoustic signals of the components of DNA, and in the other, the signals of the amino acids they encode. “By presenting raw scientific data in alternative, more deliberately aesthetic forms,” Kurutz says, “I aim to demystify the work scientists do, humanise it, and establish an experience around it that scientists and non-scientists can share.”

There are close connections between science and art, says Laura Satkamp, a graduate student in the Biological Sciences Division and Science in Art organizer, yet “most people don’t think of science as a dynamic, creative process.”

Creating a space where science and art can interact highlights the importance of these connections in the development, expression, and exploration of novel ideas. “Science in Art promotes interdisciplinarity with a much wider scope,” Adams says, “a thinking-out-of-the box capability is going to be absolutely necessary to address the challenges posed by rapid changes in our society.”