The Frontal Cortex

Felice Frankel and Data Overload

Felice Frankel is a model of consilience:

When people call Felice Frankel an artist, she winces.

In the first place, the photographs she makes don’t sell. She knows this, she says, because after she received a Guggenheim grant in 1995, she started taking her work to galleries. “Nobody wanted to bother looking,” she said.

In the second place, her images are not full of emotion or ideology or any other kind of message. As she says, “My stuff is about phenomena.”

As first an artist in residence and now a research scientist at M.I.T., and now also a senior research fellow at the Institute for Innovative Computing at Harvard, she helps researchers use cameras, microscopes and other tools to display the beauty of science.

Some might be tempted to dismiss Frankel’s work as just so much science-porn, but I think that overlooks a crucial aspect of the scientific process. Simply put, modern science is awash in data. A few hours of bench work can generate a dizzying amount of information that needs to be interpreted and analyzed. This is where people like Frankel become so important. Anything that improves the format of data, that makes it easier to detect the signal amid the noise, is an essential adjunct to the experimental process. In some instances, this will involve learning how to take prettier pictures. (I was always amused by labs that spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy microscopes and PCR machines but then opted for a really terrible camera to take pictures of all their gels and microscopic images. Granted, I was a terrible experimenter, but even my nice gels tended to resemble some monochrome work of abstract expressionism.) The underlying message of Frankel’s work is that there’s a strong correlation between beauty and clarity.