Art vs. Science, Part One: Semiconductor


Magnetic Movie
Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt)

Last fall I stopped by the Hirshhorn Museum's Black Box theatre to watch a short film by Semiconductor (the artistic team of Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt). Magnetic Movie is a color-drenched, imaginative tour of Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory. The film is below the fold, but before you watch it, take a moment to consider your expectations when you're watching a film about "lab science". Ultimately, does this film transcend or offend those expectations? And what are your expectations for scientific art in general?

Magnetic Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

So. . . did you like the film?

What do you think it says about science?

Would you use it when teaching, or show it to your non-scientist friends? If so, how would you preface it?

Magnetic Movie represents a genre that can be uncomfortably ambiguous for scientists: art based on, but not faithfully reproducing, scientific data. The film represents physical concepts in simplified, colorful visuals, a design strategy perfect for an illustrated textbook. Indeed, brightly (and artificially) colored illustrations of scientific concepts are de rigeur in modern science textbooks (contributing to the high prices of said textbooks). But Magnetic Movie transplants these idealized artistic representations into a "real" environment of labs and offices, making what you're seeing suddenly ambiguous. It's like a brief hallucination suffered by a freshman dozing off during physics 101: a fantasy inspired by science.

What parts of the film are "real"? According to the creators, the sound is "actual VLF recordings" capturing "the product of the combined turbulences of the earth's molten core, weather systems and electrical storms, ephemeral ionization in the upper atmosphere, and the solar winds." The expert commentary is accurate (as far as I can tell at least). But the visual imagery, the heart of any film, is the product of imaginative artistic license. The images don't seem to represent any specific experiment, much less the work they're actually doing in the labs at SSL (which is probably a good thing, given the ominous green bubble looming out of the building in the final sequence).

Is interleaving data and fantasy potentially confusing to nonscientist audiences? Possibly. The expert commentary, for example, cuts both ways. On the one hand, it clearly states that "magnetic fields are by their nature invisible," which should warn viewers that what they're seeing has been interpreted imaginatively. On the other hand, the very existence of a dry voice-over narration makes the film a dead ringer for a NOVA-style educational documentary. There's no clear indication that we've crossed the line into a world of pure imagination. An inexperienced layperson might assume that those clever Berkeley physicists are surrounded by this kind of thing all the time - hopping over a fluorescent orange field line as they pop down the hall for coffee, perhaps?

The artists might respond that the Berkeley physicists are constantly surrounded by invisible magnetic fields - as are we all. Fair enough. But invisibility isn't the only barrier to our perception of those fields. The events described in the voiceover operate on different scales of time and space than your typical office or cubicle. It's not like you could put on special goggles and see rainbows of current and clouds of olive-sized dipoles dancing around your keyboard. That's not how it works.

All of this invites an important question: how firmly and carefully should "scientific art" be grounded (sorry, I couldn't help it) in science?

The most obvious answer is that it depends on the intended audience for the artwork, and on the message the artists wish to convey. Some engineers and physicists may know too much about these phenomena to relax, suspend their informed disbelief, and enjoy the film. Indeed, there's been some grumbling in response to this film's inaccuracies. But Jarman and Gerhardt aren't trying to teach physics, and they don't claim to depict "real" science. They're trying to introduce the museum-going public to a world most never see (the labs of SSL) and an important phenomenon most never think about (magnetic fields). If they give the public a visual handle on which to hang their vague impressions of magnetism, however fantastic, is that a bad thing?

Art is fundamentally imaginative. Artists don't have an implicit responsibility as artists to impart an accurate picture of scientific phenomena and processes. However, scientists may understandably feel uncomfortable with art that fudges science or takes it out of context, because the scientific community has such strict taboos on misrepresentation of data. There's going to be some inevitable tension between a discipline that embraces multiple dissonant views of reality, and one that relentlessly pursues the most accurate view of reality possible.

But I think that lay audiences approach scientific art differently - perhaps more credulously - than they do other forms of art, simply because lay audiences feel insecure and uncertain about basic science. Audiences may have so much respect for science, that they extend respect reflexively when science appears in other contexts - like art or entertainment. Anyone who's had to field the incredulous question "can they really do that?" from friends or family after an especially inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster knows exactly what I mean!

So: when artists specifically represent their work as scientific, or informed by science, or based on science, do they then have a certain responsibility to be, well, scientific? Or is that simply not part of the artist's role? There's no right or wrong answer here; it's a question that has intrigued me for some time specifically because you can make a case both ways. What do you think? In the case of "Magnetic Movie", does Semiconductor leave the audience more knowledgeable about science, more interested in science - or simply misled?

Let me know your thoughts - and to those of you at ScienceOnline09 today, please chime in with your feedback after you get home!

More thoughts on art inspired by science later, in Part 2...

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interesting topic. i liked the film. there is so much of science that is left to the mind's eye to "see" what is happening, because we are physially incapable perceiving it. fun to see their take of what magnetic fields look like, and how they impact charged particles. i often have my students describe what they think it would be like if they were capable of seeing electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum. what would they see? how would they feel? etc. this kinda gives a look at something similar.

i understand the concern about people taking it at face value & being confused, and about stepping on the toes of the scientific community. still kinda cool, though:)

By dan melin (not verified) on 18 Jan 2009 #permalink

I liked the film a lot. It didn't strike me as at all misleading and I wouldn't feel the need to preface it with heavy explanations and forewarnings if showing it to non-scientists. Lay audiences are used to dealing with non-literal representations and are usually quite able to unpick them. Virtually no-one is likely to view something like this their critical faculties switched off and take it to be 'just the facts, ma'am'.

The bald presentation of data that scientists favour (at least in 'official' contexts like journal papers), on the other hand, constantly striving to avoid the appearance of forcing interpretation, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of good communication, largely impenetrable to those who do not already have the background to make use of it.

There may or may not be an artistic responsibility to be 'scientific' in work deriving from science -- I suspect most artists would feel some obligation to engage with 'the truth' in such things, whatever they found that to be -- but the idea that something like this film would offend us on the basis of misrepresenting the data makes a mockery of the whole notion of art; and does so in a way that makes scientists look like humourless, aesthetically-challenged pedants.

I'm a "lay person", but I have a general idea of how magnetic fields work, and of the portions of the electromagnetic spectrum which lie outside of the "slice" we can actually see..

Of course the video makes use of artistic license, but I thought it was uber-cool, well-conceived and well-implemented. We all need aids in our efforts to visualize the world beyond the reach of our senses!

I didn't like the film at all. The visuals didn't help aid understanding. They were simply pretty, with no explanation of what was being seen.

And to my (non-physicist) eye, a lot of them looked just wrong. Don't magnetic field lines always form loops? A lot of the visualizations were one-ended strands. And the field lines on the electrical wires were all wrong. They don't jump out of the wire at one place, travel a distance, then join back with the wire in a second place. They loop around the wire in concentric circles, no?


If its an educational video, I'd say keep it accurate.

Otherwise present it as a multimedia artwork with a disclaimer.

Where the line is IMHO is if you say "this is how it is" for educational purposes, but you know the phenomenon is not actually as you are depicting it.

In art, you can say "look at these cool effects we can derive starting with some scientific ideas. Just be aware this is not meant to be scientifically accurate, but instead a work of art."

The video itself is highly entertaining. The banal backdrops of the labs, hallways and offices with bizarre phenomena occurring brings to mind the invisible, bizarre phenomena we cannot see but live with every day (at the sub-atomic level, for instance). A bit Lovecraftian too, like The Colour Out of Space.

So I thoroughly enjoyed it. But seeing it here Jessica , we're in on the secret. It's not being perpetrated as a hoax of something that happened, it's delivered as possibly fiction.

I think this has loads of value. Yogi-One, I completely agree with your comment. It's taking a starting point of learning and playing with it, not being the starting point. Scientifically-inspired, not scientific illustration.

There is potential to confuse people of course, but in this video I think it's minimized. We live with visual effects all the time now.

Some artists don't worry about the interpretation, washing their hands of the audience's views, which can be a bit irresponsible (thinking of the fake bomb outside the Royal Ontario Museum that was called 'art'). Here I don't think it's the case. This felt like playing.


Jessica, you are SOOOOO coming to NC next year!!! If I have to personally carry you!

If Semiconductor pitched this short film to high school or college physics teachers, then maybe I'd balk...but only a bit.

Above all, the video is interested in conveying the "magic," if you'll forgive that term, of the unseen world. Concepts like dark matter and magnetism are vividly rendered in text book diagrams, but this video (with dancing color and an "otherworldy" soundtrack) allows the lay person to glimpse what is impossible to see.

Sure, the effects don't reveal what is actually there and, as at least one commenter suggested, some of the colorful actions may not reflect the understood movement of magnetic field lines, but I assume that the intention of the artists is not to teach, but rather to produce of wonder. Once wonder enters the equation, curiosity and awe will carry you where they may. Maybe you'll end up as first author on a physics journal paper. Maybe you'll end up making "abstract" artworks. Maybe you'll end up an accountant. Whatever the path taken, hopefully you'll hold onto that sense of wonder, that awareness of so much more.

That, I think, is a worthy aim, and any imaginative liberties should be forgiven, especially if Semiconductor makes no claim to scientific fidelity.

Matt said:

"Virtually no-one is likely to view something like this their critical faculties switched off and take it to be 'just the facts, ma'am'."

Matt, in my experience, the public is far from savvy enough to tell the difference between this film and reality. Perhaps that's because I grew up (and later taught college) in a rural area without any local tech industry to speak of. Since moving to the East coast, I find that my peers have grander expectations of the public's interest in/understanding of science than I believe are justified!

It's too bad that a film like "Magnetic Movie" is most accessible in urban areas with museums. I would love for films like this to travel to rural parts of the country, to expose people to what a lab looks like, and encourage students to look far afield at the possibility of science careers. (Anyone want to arrange a film festival of science-themed films to visit rural colleges?)

And the types of thought questions dan suggests are great: they're open-ended enough to let students do some real exploration of how we build models to help us think about our world (sort of what Larry mentions). I think some discussion/criticism of what in this film is real, vs. creative license, would enhance that experience for students.

kevin, you are not alone in disliking the film - although our commenters here mostly like it, I've seen similar concerns when/where this video has been discussed online before. I think most such concerns arise from perceived inaccuracies in the way science is presented. No one argues that the film is a "hoax" - if it were intended to mislead, as Glendon notes, it might be a different matter. But if it's a "starting point" for learning, then there's a some learning process that has to take place after viewing the film. Will that process take place without any guidance?

Some of you suggest that as long as the film is not presented as "educational" or shown in an educational setting, it doesn't matter if it takes a bit of license with science. Personally, I wonder if it's even possible for a film about scientific research to be viewed without an educational frame - at least by many people. I think perhaps that frame is implicit in the scientific content of the artwork. That's what I meant by "Audiences may have so much respect for science, that they extend respect reflexively when science appears in other contexts - like art or entertainment." Isn't that why we try to promote accurate depictions of science in television and films - because any exposure to science is an informal opportunity to learn?

In the end, I do agree with HH - "wonder" is very well-captured here. The eerie soundtrack, the sudden and unpredictable movement of the lines, the emptiness of the hallways - I like Glendon's Lovecraft reference - all make the film a bit surreal, ominous, mysterious, awesome (in its old connotation of "awe-inducing"). That feeling alone more than justifies this film for me (as if Semiconductor required my approval - not likely). :)

Thanks for your thoughts everyone!

It depends upon the application or purpose of the art. If meant as an illustration then it should be as accurate and realistic as possible. If its meant as inspiration some artistic freedom should be allowed. Most of mine I consider science fiction because they bear both science and fictional influences in the works.

Can I conclude, Magnetic Movie is basically science fiction art.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 04 Oct 2009 #permalink