Surreal Science

Essay / by Tim Jones /

Tiles in a worldwide sci-art mosaic explore what science means to writers, scientists, school children, and others.

Seed’s own contribution to the Exquisite Corpse of Science. Click to see slideshow.

Something impressive happens in our brains when we think about an issue or problem; we somehow manage to automatically summon up all the right words and pictures needed to resolve it. We might start by phrasing a silent question to ourselves in words, to which we add imagery, before translating our conclusion back into words—then perhaps sharing with others.

Pausing the thought process midstream to ponder those internal images to share with strangers is what the Exquisite Corpse of Science project is all about.

The Exquisite Corpse began as an intellectual party game for the Surrealists in the 20th century. Participants take turns drawing a picture on a sheet of paper folded so that each image is hidden from the next artist. The pictures may follow a set theme or be totally random, but all are kept hidden in the folds until the end of the game. When the sheet is unfolded, the inevitably wacky composite is revealed. If participants make parts of their picture touch common points at the paper’s edge, so much the better.

In April 2009, I became intrigued by the possibility of using Exquisite Corpse in science communication. Drawn images can reveal conscious, and I would argue subconscious, narratives relating to a person’s view of science—views that person might struggle to express in words alone. At the same time, the Exquisite Corpse themes of collection and joining can help to highlight contrasts, similarities, and interplays across different individual and group perspectives on science.

This theory was put to test with colleagues from the Science Communication Group at Imperial College in London. We persuaded friends and even complete strangers—all of whom belonged to one of three categories: scientists, professional communicators, and the general public—to sit down with a pen and paper and draw what they think is important in science. We made audio recordings of what they said as they drew.

The spontaneity of this quick, low-budget process produced some fascinating insights. With a little tidying and artistic enhancement, we converted the drawings into a short movie called The Exquisite Corpse of Science, which screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York this October.

Each of the artists featured in the film put a different spin on the task. I was impressed by the broad awareness of issues shown by one of our youngest artists, a 14-year-old student. His drawing depicted AIDS and nuclear weapons, as well as concepts such as global warming and carbon footprints. A scientist used her specialist knowledge of atmospheric physics to illustrate the scientific method, while a programs developer at a science museum talked about scientific stereotypes and accountability. In the artists’ drawings and comments, we saw a blurring of the lines between what it means to be a scientist, a communicator, or part of that huge pool we bluntly refer to as “lay people.”

That such interesting commentary could be extracted from so few people inspired me to keep the project alive—and even extend it. I invite anyone and everyone from all walks of life to send in their own pictures of what they think is important in science. Don’t be shy.

Learn more about the project and how to take part here. For inspiration, watch the slideshow for some of the submissions received so far.

Originally published December 10, 2009

Tags communication public perception sciart

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