Scientists make stuff up all the time. Although some scientists manufacture their data, most spend their time dreaming up ways to experiment. Unless you simply want to prove an earlier result, you have to create innovative experiments because there’s little point in doing something that’s already been done. This is one of the many bonds between science and art. And it’s behind the news that, right now, junior scientists in Bristol are producing street art.
They’re brimming, it seems. “Students at our doctoral training centres are full of creativity and ideas that will surely transform the way we live,” says Atti Emecz, the director of communications at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), one of the government’s science funding bodies.
But scientists can also be among the most arrogant people too, superior in their depth of understanding. Sometimes this is the perception, and sometimes it is the truth (Richard Dawkins springs to mind). Because in a lot of ‘science communication’ schemes, in which scientists and the public chat about science, some scientists can still approach a layperson as an empty vessel waiting to be filled up with knowledge (an old-fashioned theory known as the ‘deficit model’). They’re generally a lot better than that.
And that’s why they’re taking to the streets this weekend to paint the town. Well, Bristol city centre anyway.
PhD and EngD students funded by the EPSRC are said to be transforming concepts from engineering, nanoscience and chemistry into artworks on large boards and an old car in Bristol as part of the street art festival See No Evil. Overseen by street artist Old Master (Dan Petley), the initiative hopes to “express the themes and ideas behind their research, translating science and engineering concepts into street art”.
I’m not going to make it to Bristol this weekend, so I won’t be able to see the works themselves. I like the idea of more art being produced in the world. And if it draws on science, all the better.
But where I differ from the See No Evil lot is in the intention. “Science and engineering have a bad reputation for excluding the public by using technical jargon and being quite dry,” says Natasha Watson, a postgraduate research engineer from the University of Bristol. “I hope to help break this image down, showing that science and engineering can be fun and accessible.”
She’s spot on about that reputation, but a little off about breaking it down. Why is her story about breaking down the stuffy image of science rather than just doing the art itself? Every time a scientist says to me, “I’ll show you how fun my science is,” aren’t I more inclined to think, “this is not fun at all?” Isn’t that what many scientists just don’t understand? They should spend time making art based on what inspires them rather than a narrow idea based on what is still a superior intention (‘I can make you understand this’).
One of the images of the artworks backs up my fear that initiatives like this can be hamfisted. It shows a portrait of Steve Jobs, dressed up like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or Brunel, possessed by Jobs – whichever you prefer. There’s little to connect with emotionally, little to inspire, little to imagine.
On the other hand, Blake Kendrick’s piece, an abstract depiction of the machine he works with, is full of possibilities. It leaves so much up to the viewer, which is brilliant and brave. Kendrick trusts you to fill in the gaps. He knows you’re not going to understand what the machine is used for (not because you’re thick, but because you spend eight hours a day with different machines or people). So he leaves interpretation up to you. He’s not trying to tell you anything.
More science art like this, please.