Research as art​​

Organizers hope an exhibit of striking images created by research scientists will become an annual tradition at Washington University

A selection of the images in the inaugeral Art in Research exhibit.

As you watch these slides tick by, if you suddenly say, “Wow, what is THAT?” you’ve responded exactly the way Martin Pratt hoped you would.

Pratt, a fifth-year graduate student in earth and planetary sciences, visited an art exhibit about scientific research last year at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York and was inspired to organize a similar exhibit at Washington University in St. Louis.

With the help of fellow graduate students and the support of several departments, he organized an inaugural exhibit titled “Research as Art,” which was hosted by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences on April 3.

(Credit: Windisch)

Andreas Windisch, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate, was awarded first prize in physics for his image of a double vortex in a superfluid. Kathryn Powell, a graduate student, won first prize in earth and planetary sciences for an accidentally smeared image of data from an instrument aboard a satellite orbiting Mars. The People’s Choice Award went to Frank Gyngard, PhD, a research scientist in physics, for an anaglyph (red/green stereoscopic image) of a mote of dust propelled into space by a supernova.

(Credit: Powell)

Fine art and the sciences may seem like hostile foreign countries, but many people are habitual border crossers or hold dual citizenship. One reason is that both scientists and artists are entranced by the beauty of the world, and forever on the lookout for new and surprising manifestations of this beauty.

In the essay collection “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” Richard Feynman, the 1965 Nobel laureate in physics, explained why he wanted to learn to draw enough that he took lessons from an artist friend, then from correspondence school and finally from the Pasadena Art Museum.

(Credit: Gyngard)

“I wanted very much to learn to draw,” Feynman wrote, “for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. “

A Google search for Pratt’s academic title turns up the fact that part of his website is devoted to landscape photography, an interest he said, that grew out of his love of the natural world. His photographs, particularly those taken in Antarctica, resemble the allegorical landscapes by the 19th century German Romantic painter Caspar Friedrich, more evocative than documentary.

Pratt does not mention his photography but instead says, “I’m really interested in trying to get people to think about their work and how it is perceived by the public. The challenge is to produce a single image that wil grab the viewer’s attention, compelling them to ask what the image means and how it was produced.”

Pratt, Phil Skemer, PhD, associate professor of earth and planetary science, and Amanda Bender, a graduate student in earth and planetary science who helped organize the exhibit, discuss an image by physicist Kater Murch. (Credit: Mary Butkus/WUSTL Photos)

In this way the images can serve as the starting point for dialogue between scientists and non-scientists.

By organizing this art exhibit, Pratt hoped it would start a tradition, one that would continue after he left the university, coaxing more and more students to cross disciplinary borders with or without visas.

“Research as Art” was supported by the Departments of Physics and Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, and the GIS office, which printed the images. Although this year it was open to members of those departments and the center, the organizers plan to invite more departments to join in next year’s exhibit.