It is nice to see science and art getting along. The World Science Festival's event Eye Candy demonstrates how science can help us understand some of our notions of beauty. Art is equally useful to science, especially to scientists who envy the artist's ability to parlay an idea into something visual—something that does not make too many demands on their audience's time.
Most people are unaware of human impacts on the oceans, such as overfishing, pollution, and invasive species. This deficiency is in part due to the ocean itself—the opaqueness of the surface transmits a deceiving tranquility—and also in part because scientists studying the ocean have not been able to quickly communicate the problems. That is why I wanted to collaborate with Dave Beck, an artist and professor at Clarkson University.
Dave and I have been friends since we were eleven years old. We were more than friends before that, but our preadolescent relationship met a precociously dramatic end somewhere in late 1990. I had provoked him, which he let me know in this letter. We were two strong-willed tweens and it would take almost twenty years before we realized a way to harness our passion and intensity to achieve something more than altercation.
In 2008, it was my turn to write a letter, which asked if Dave would be willing to lend his digital talents to conveying the seafood the future. I had blogged about jellyfish burgers and there was widespread interest in reproducing the image (which was a hasty, low resolution hack job). Dave and I discussed creating a new burger in which the jellyfish would ominously creep toward the viewer as a metaphor for the degradation of the ocean. The image would have a portentousness common to Martin Schoeller's portraits. In 2009, jellyfish burger v 2.0 wiggled its way into print.
It is our hope that the weirdness of the jellyfish burger compels the viewer to read the information on the napkin above it. The image has been reprinted widely (e.g. Discover's piece asking if vermin is the meat of the future) and earlier this year it received honorable mention in the National Science Foundation's visualization challenge.
We have plans for more seafood of the future pieces but Dave's latest exhibit—he built and printed portraits of human movements over the course of one day —got us wondering if we could also look at marine animals differently. I often ask how we can expand our social groups to include non-human life forms. This quarter, I offered my undergraduate students the option of becoming a Facebook ambassador for a marine species and more than 60 of my students built profiles for an ocean animal. They update the status with the latest scientific research on their species, post photos, and gather information about their species' behavior.
So I got in touch with Dr. Barbara Block, head of Stanford's Tuna Research and Conservation Center, which tracks the movements of these warm-blooded fish. Block and her project kindly donated tagged data for the 90-day movement of a Pacific bluefin tuna, which can be over four feet long, weigh more than four hundred pounds, and travel some 6,000 nautical miles. Dave has been able to model the tuna's movements, the first in a new series of portraits of marine animals we are calling "Migrations".
The design will eventually be solidified by a technology as exciting and elusive as the tuna themselves: a 3D printer. We hope to print the migrations of many different marine species (scientists recently discovered that humpback whales, which can travel 5100 miles from Central America to Antarctica in one season, make the longest known migration of any mammal) as well as their interactions with human beings. Northern right whales, for instance, are highly endangered and only approximately 350 individuals live today. Their north-south migration along the eastern seaboard sadly overlaps with the east-west migration of cargo ships, which occasionally collide with and kill the whales. Modeling, printing, and presenting such interactions in an aesthetic way could be a powerful tool to get the public to see the sea differently and understand the human impacts in an instant.
Meanwhile, apart from that brief kerfuffle in 1990, the interactions between this scientist and artist are far less perilous.
Eye Candy: Science, Sight, Art takes place on June 3 at 7:00pm at the Kimmel Center, Eisner & Lubin Auditorium in New York City. Visit the World Science Festival website to purchase tickets and learn more about the many other 2010 Festival programs.
ugh... this burger is awful... ;)