Worms, art, and the "dogma of science"


"Labyrinthine Meditation, Middle Stage"
Brian Knep, 2009

Brian Knep, an artist-in-residence at Harvard Medical School, just ended a solo exhibition at Boston's judi rotenberg gallery. Interestingly, the exhibition press release is unabashedly critical of science:

Through the scientific study of microscopic worms, Knep engages metaphysical questions of human behavior, the passage of time, and our inevitable transition to death. Knep's study of Caenorhabditis elegans, was inspired by the studies being conducted by scientists at the Harvard lab, specifically the study of aging, or the "disintegration of information" as they call it. However, while Knep applies learned methods of research, he departs from the dogma of science, and adopts a more human approach to the topic of aging. He is intrigued by the limitations of science, the inability of such a brilliant system to carry us closer to understanding human existence.

We seek salvation in science, hoping to ease our fears - afraid of pain, we research disease; afraid of death we research aging - yet pain is inevitable and life is impermanent. Behind much of my work is a desire to address these conflicting themes by using the tools of science and engineering to make works about connection and change.

Ouch! The "dogma of science"? Really?

While the press release may be a bit provocative, Knep's work is quite the contrary: a soothing, textured sepia. Like the piece at the top of the post, the piece below is an agar plate containing a culture of C. elegans (tiny worms used as a genetic model system). But while the piece above is clean-lined and emblematic, the piece below is cracking, molding and decaying as the culture dies.


"Hair Mold"
Brian Knep, 2009

Having done my share of research in a C. elegans lab (I got to inject them with fluorescent transgenes, fun fun), I have a bit of a hard time seeing the magic in these pieces. They just look like more work to me, and I start to get a hint of a microscope headache. However, I'm willing to admit that I'm biased - C. elegans have lovely lines, after all. And the balance between the strong patterns on the dishes and the organic swirls of worms is an effective visual.

See more work by Knep, a computer programmer who once created effects for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, here.

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Hi Jessica, I ran across your post and thought you might find it interesting to read some of the work done by philosophers of science. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn is a key work and there are many others out there. I agree that perhaps "dogma of science" is too harsh. "Dogma of scientists" would be more accurate: the unquestioned beliefs of current practitioners of science. But my work is actually more about the limits of science, which most scientists I know acknowledge. The problem is that our culture tends to forget this, looking to science to save us from all our ills, physical, emotional, and spiritual.


Great recc, Brian. Thomas Kuhn is a good read, and we should all try to squeeze that book in at some point if we want to discuss the practice of science. I would also suggest some of the authors who examine the intersection of science and policy and the concept of expertise - to me, they're more real-world relevant than many of the philosophers. (With all respect where it's due, I don't have enough hours in my day to spend them on social constructivism.)

Your point about the limits of science is quite valid - I didn't find myself in disagreement with your statement on your website, only a little alarmed by the wording in the press release, since "dogma of science" is an old saw used by a lot of skeptics to delegitimate science as a whole, and not merely to point out its limits. Along those lines, you might be interested in these recent posts:

Scientific Consensus and other dirty words
Science Is Not a Democracy