Science Presented Through Art

Laurell McCaffrey
Nov 8 · 5 min read

& how it facilitates new perspectives.

The second half of the twentieth-century has showed continued interest in the use of art to visualize and explain data. This is an increasing trend that was inspired by the endless possibilities offered by the always expanding technological tool box. Technology has advanced to the point where it does more than just coexist with people. It can now envelope the viewer and create a new realm for them to inhabit. This kind of relationship creates new opportunities for how we see and think about the real world.

An increasingly popular new way to represent space is Virtual Reality. This technology has been used for many functions that include a more in depth view of areas that are not easily accessible or spaces that are impossible to enter. Some examples include Virtual Realities that simulate the experience of being inside ancient ruins that exists in other parts of the globe. They include monuments that are under threat from deliberate and natural disasters. There is also the possibility of creating new spaces that are impossible to enter, such as the sixteenth-century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. This Virtual Reality has been made into an application that one can download on their phone and use Google Cardboard to experience immediately. By creating full immersion, one can devote their full attention as well as literally see from a new perspective.

One of the most innovative immersive experiences to date is the Allosphere. After twenty-six years of dedicated work, it was completed in 2007 by JoAnn Kuchera-Morin along with the efforts of scientists, engineers, architects, as well as acoustical consultant and visual consultant firms. It was realized by the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE) which was founded by Kuchera-Morin in 1986. This unique structure is a sphere with a thirty foot diameter that is housed in a three-story echo-free cube. It is located at the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California in Santa Barbara. One physically steps inside the sphere for a 3D 360 degree visual experience paired with surround sound. The main objective of this equally scientific and artistic instrument is to visually plot and audibly narrate complex data in time and space.

It was inspired by the pressing need for a new machine that could handle a multitude of data simultaneously. In an interview with TED blog author, Emily McManus she explains, “Some of my mathematician colleagues are working with 6-dimensional figures. Scientists have such tremendously rich math data that the instruments they use now can’t actually see it.” She continues, “There are scientists now who have lost the ability to perceive their data. Now they might have the ability to perceive this data again through computers that have portals that let them see and hear their data, not just see a string of numbers.” This new way of investigating data makes it possible to detect patterns that might not be immediately seen when the data is organized and presented in other forms. Kuchera-Morin highlights the advantage to perceiving data in novel ways, “You’ll be able to see and hear patterns — you’ll see balance, continuity, contrast, surprise, all the things that catch people’s attention.” She points out that presenting data in nontraditional ways facilitates the way people read the data and can lead to new discoveries.

Kuchera-Morin was trained as a composer and uses her artistic knowledge to present data in a new way. The AlloSphere takes raw data and transforms it into another form of data that can be both seen and heard. Inside the structure is a bridge to stand on that is set up so the viewer is at eye level with the horizon of the sphere. It’s twenty-six projectors produce a true 3D 360 view as well as the surround sound whose system that includes 140 individual speakers and sub-woofers.

There is a further goal, to not only make this a completely immersive experience but also an interactive one as well. She envisions researchers wearing gloves that can literally “reach out and grab data, pull data to them. 15 researchers can be inside interacting and doing multiple things with the data at the same time. This can enable multiple people to be looking at the same information in real time together.” This enhances the experience due to the new possibilities that emerge, such as providing a new way and greater opportunities for collaboration and team work.

One imagined use for the AlloSphere is to depict the inside of the human brain. It would be used by neurosurgeons to make more precise calculations and to discover new ways to approach the delicate task of brain surgery. In Kuchera-Morin’s TED Talk she poetically describes her vision, “Imagine if a team of surgeons could fly into the brain as though it was a world, and see tissue as landscapes and hear blood density levels as music.” By allowing surgeons to “fly into the brain” they can look at the brain from a completely new perspective and inspire new tactics for surgery.

In 2010 Lev Manovich published an article about information visualization. He offers multiple definitions that include, “Information visualization is the communication of abstract data through the use of interactive visual interfaces” and “Information visualization utilizes computer graphics and interaction to assist humans in solving problems.” He explains how visualizing data is done to summarize and get a new perspective on the information. This also makes trends in the data stand out to those reading it. Although, Manovich highlights the dichotomy between information visualization and scientific visualization, they are conceptually similar. He makes a point about their different origins, information in words and scientific in numerical based data, however they both serve the same purpose. They both aim to help the reader increase their understanding of whatever data is being visualized.

In the mid-twentieth century, artists started using art as a medium for representing scientific concepts. Artists such as Berenice Abbott (who took portraits of abstract concepts for MIT textbooks) and Nam June Paik (who was one of the first artists to use Television sets in his work) used the latest technology to do so. Their innovative ways of visualizing data were the first steps that lead future artists to experiment with cutting edge technology and even create their own, such as JoAnn Kuchera-Morin and the Allosphere. Theorist Lev Manovich sums up scientists and artists different approaches towards solving the same problem. People across all disciplines can agree that visualizing data is crucial to understanding information.

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