Shadow sculpture

When Science Communication and UX design collide.

Using principles of UX design to create an installation communicating the nature of science and its place within society.

Timeframe

8 weeks

Client

Imperial College London

Task

Create an installation that represents and communicates a particular aspect of the philosophy of science communication.

The Team

Our team consisted of three science communicators: Alice, Andy and myself.

Goals:

As a team we worked on understanding which aspect of science communication we wanted to focus on. We decided to focus on the scientific process as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn saw it. Science progresses when theories are viewed from a different perspective, though the media often portrays science as clearly defined facts that are derived from a rigid scientific process, in reality this is far from the case. There are many uncertainties and theories which are tested and changed (much like the UX process).

  • Create an installation that helps to visualize a ‘paradigm shift’, analogous to Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in science.
  • Communicate the uncertainty and human side of the scientific process
  • Illustrate a popular scientific myth about the scientific process.

THE CHALLENGE

In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that for scientific knowledge to progress there must be dramatic reorientations in the way scientists view nature. These so-called ‘paradigm shifts’ dramatically modify our understanding of the universe. We wanted to create an installation that allowed our viewers to undergo their own paradigm shift, while representing the complicated, uncertainty of science.

DISCOVERY

Back to UX design principles…

We wanted the installation to be engaging and have an element of surprise. While interviewing scientists and going round their laboratories our aim was to get a general feel about how scientists work, how do they come up with research ideas, what do their labs look like, what do they do in their free time?

Target Audience (primary user)

We identified our target audience to be those interested in science, but not necessarily trained in the sciences. Their goals would be to get a better understanding of the scientific process, to feel engaged with the installation and to learn something new.

PLANNING

We began with identifying which scientific myth we wanted to communicate, considering our primary persona, it would have to be a popular and easily understandable myth. We decided to go with the myth of Isaac Newton discovering gravity. The story goes, an apple fell onto his head while he was sitting beneath a tree, this occurrence caused him to discover gravity.

Nowadays, if you ask any primary school child how gravity was discovered, the majority will almost certainly point to that ‘eureka’ moment that Isaac Newton had while sitting under a tree as an apple fell on his head. The books present in the sculpture were chosen to represent the importance of narrative in science and for the creation of myths. In reality the discovery of gravity depended upon the combination of mathematical and physical theories from the work of previous scientists, rather than that singular moment when an apple fell to Newton’s head. In fact, Newton’s letter, in 1676, to his rival Robert Hooke stated, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. By this, Newton emphasizes that his theory on gravity was built upon the ideas of other scientists.

The second aspect of the scientific process we wanted to communicate was the messiness of science. While going round the labs we noticed the amount of waste created by scientists, not just from their lunch boxes, but also general scientific waste, test tubes, pipettes and flasks.

Scientific waste

The French anthropologist, Bruno Latour also thought that social factors were involved in the formation of scientific knowledge, yet he was interested in looking at the processes that occur in the laboratory. While spending time observing scientists in a laboratory, he identified just how important social factors were compared to the technical when determining the source of scientific knowledge. This influenced the way in which we constructed the sculpture. As well as portraying traditional technical aspects of science such as a microscope, Petri dishes and test tubes, the shadow sculpture includes items associated with the social factors that influence science including; a bottle of wine and disposable coffee cups. These are meant to draw on the idea that science can occur outside the laboratory for example, whilst in a social situation such as chatting with colleagues or friends over a coffee or glass of wine.

Depicting the ‘social’ side of science

Creating a paradigm shift…

We started brainstorming ideas as to how we could create this shift in perception using the scientific junk and the myth of the discovery of gravity. We came up with the idea of creating a shadow sculpture. This is an installation which would look like a pile of scientific ‘junk’, however, when a light is shone through it, the image of sir Issac Newton sitting beneath a tree would appear as it’s shadow. In this way, the viewer’s perception would switch from scientific mess to coherent image.

DESIGN

After dragging the building materials from Park Royal to South Kensington via the Piccadilly Line we arrived back at college. Once there we drew an outline of the shadow we wanted to create. We then projected this outline onto a wall to create an even larger outline! In a long process of trial and error, we positioned the various scientific apparatus in front of a lamp, making sure that the shadow fitted within the outline. We thought that the very process of building the sculpture, laying large foundations upon which smaller structures add detail, connoted Thomas Kuhn’s ‘problem solving’ which occurs when a science happily works within an existing paradigm, or the ‘iterating’ part of design in a UX design process.

The video below shows a timelapse of us creating the sculpture.

Shadow sculpture creation

PRESENTATION

The completed shadow sculpture was exhibited at an ‘open gallery’ event where viewers were invited to see it in a space where its meanings could best be interpreted. As viewers entered the room the shadow was not immediately obvious, instead they were faced with a jumble of scientific materials. Only when they moved to a specific location in the room could they see the full shadow.

The final sculpture

SUMMARY

It was extremely satisfying to complete this project and hear the viewer’s positive comments during the exhibition day. We worked well as a team and each brought our strengths to the table. Having a creative background, I was largely involved in the design of the sculpture, ensuring the image of the shadow really did look like Isaac Newton.

In the future it would be interesting to create more sculptures, perhaps each one exhibiting different elements of science communication philosphy.

Though this was more of an interpretive ‘art piece’, rather than a strictly success driven piece of UX design, it would be very interesting to find out what the ‘user’s’ took away from the experience. We were only able to measure the success of the goals through comments during the exhibition, perhaps a short questionnaire would have been interesting to identify what each viewer thought.