Cool Art of Science, the Science of Art

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mixing the staggering beauty of pure art with a precision and dedication of great science.

It reads contradictory and conflicted: the art of science/science of art – the mixture of the logical and methodical with the imaginative and emotional.

But science and art – or, if you’d prefer, art and science – have held hands, if not as close friends, for a very long time. Greek and Roman artists followed often strict guidelines considering the correct mathematical proportions of the figures in their frescoes and sculptures, Japanese woodblocks were as much about mechanical precision as they were about the subject being printed, the Renaissance was all about using science to bring a literal new dimension to painting, and then you have the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Everything you see below is made from glass...
No, you haven’t heard of Leopold or Rudolf Blaschka – but you certainly should have. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, the Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, Michangelo and Leonardo, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka aren’t well-known outside of either esoteric or scientific circles.

Which is what makes them so remarkable: they mixed the staggering beauty of pure art with a precision and dedication worthy of great scientists.

Recreating Nature in Glass - Looking Through a Glass, Darkly

Leopold and Rudolf were glass artisans – possibly some of the greatest, ever. They weren’t concerned with platters and goblets, lampshades and windows. Nope, Leopold and Rudolf created nature.
Simplified, here’s the story: Harvard Professor George Lincoln Goodale wanted examples to help teach botany, but the problem was plants have a tendency to … well, die. Sure, you could preserve some specimens but lots of species just don’t look the same after being dried – the plant version of stuffed and mounted. Yes, you could try using paintings or even photography but plants are – and here’s a surprise -- three dimensional. So what Professor Goodale did was ask the Blaschkas to create detailed glass plants to help him teach his students about real ones.
What the Blaschkas did, was more than just recreate plants: they created astounding works of not only scientific accuracy but pure, brilliant, art. Even the simplest of their efforts is deceptively unencumbered… a sign of their genius as their reproductions don't resemble the botanical model – they look EXACTLY like them, created by hand, in fickle and fragile glass, and all in the period 1887 to 1936.
What’s even more impressive is how many they created - more than 3,000 models of some 850 species – many of which can be seen on display at Harvard while many others are being painstakingly restored. But the Blaschkas didn’t stop at mere plants. Plants are relatively simple subjects and there are much deeper challenges out there - creatures so rare and fragile that very few men have ever seen them in their delicate flesh (even more frail than the glass the Blaschkas used to recreate them).

When the reproductions below were conjured in the late 19th century only a few marine explorers and a few lucky seaman had seen any of them. Octopi, urchins, sea cucumbers, anemones, jellyfish, cuttlefish – they were too rare, too fragile, to be seen outside of their briny homes. That is until the Blaschkas.

I wish there was some way to request a moment of silence. I wish there was some way to ask you to stop reading this and look at the pictures here and at other places of the web. I wish there was some way for you to have a nice glass of wine, put on some nice music – maybe Bach, who also mixed science and art – and just admire the care, the craft, and the pure art the Blaschkas created.

Other Astonishing Amalgams of Science and Art

The Blaschka brothers left an inspirational legacy. Josiah McElheny – a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant – is a kindred spirit to the Blaschkas, another mind-blowing artist who works in the whimsical and temperamental medium of glass … and the disciplined domain of science.

McElheny’s works -- like that of the Blaschka brothers -- take inspiration from the universe around us, and there is no better example than the key moment seen below. In many ways this is a perfect place to stop: the Blaschka brothers created perfect artistic reproductions of nature to teach science, and McElheny created a sculptural interpretation of the ultimate act of creation, as discovered by science: the Big Bang.
Dale Chihuly also makes incredible glass sculptures, but these are more surreal than scientifically correct:
Physics Fusion With Art?

When physics get too complicated (or obscure) the whole exercise may start to resemble abstract art patterns:
Fabric Brain Art: This is Your Brain on Wool

Neuroscience and art mix beautifully at "The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art" - click here. Some examples are somewhat unnerving, and others are plainly tongue-in-cheek:
Fabric MRI - slices, slices everywhere:
Street art can be educational too: here is a lesson in anatomy and graffiti skill, seen somewhere in Russia:
The Dark Side of the Moon is Buried in the Wall - and Mystery... for Another 70 Years

Perhaps one the most striking examples of astronomy science visualisation is this humongous model of the Moon from 1908, almost a surreal doorway to another world, a snapshot of bizarre art/science history:


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