brain activity in dead salmon and wine in a blender: or, what i learned at AAAS 2013

In mid-February I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The theme of the five-day meeting was The Beauty and Benefits of Science. This theme supports the movement from STEM education to STEAM, adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Many of the panels focused on the use of visualizations and creative practices in the lab. Some of the panels I attended were very engaging to visual and performing artists. Here are some brief notes from those speakers.

Artful Science (3 of 5 lectures)
The Herbarium as Muse: Plant Specimens as Inspiration
Maura Flannery (Biology, St. John’s University, NY) provided a visual history of herbariums. While she differentiated on the more scientific views of botanists to those of artists and curiosity collectors, Flannery also emphasized that the field would not have been able to move forward without  artists’ illustrations of specimens. She also commented on contemporary artists inspired by plants including John Sarra, Amy Youngs, and Michele Oka Doner.

Dimension of Time in Strange Attractors
Robert Krawczyk (College of Architecture, IIT) created software to generate algorithms. His artwork is an outcome of these equations.  The images embody movement and dimensionality, suggesting new ways to consider space.

Screen Shot 2013-03-11 at 4.20.19 PM
Bends Through I by Krawczyk

Sand Dollars, Echinodermata, and Radiolaria: Sculptural Forms from Hyperbolic Tessellations
George Hart uses mathematical applications to create sculpture and video. Many of his sculptures are made of small, simple shapes that can be connected into large, complex forms. Hart is now exploring 3D printing to make models of his pieces and to create more fragile tessellations.

Echinodermania (detail) by Hart
Echinodermania (detail) by Hart

Evidence from Music, Fiction, and the Visual Arts: Transfer of Learning from the Arts? (3 of 5 lectures)
This was an interesting set of presentations about the transferability of art skills to other (specifically science and math) domains. What surprised me was the intense focus of the research, selecting one tangible skill (ie drawing) and seeing if it directly applies to one specific field (ie geometry). While I am certain that technical training in the arts can enhance learning and understanding in other disciplines, I was hoping to see a panel of psychologists consider the cognitive aspect of art appreciation. These three lectures touched on this aspect.

What Does it Mean to be Musical? On the Genetics of Music Ability
Daniel J. Levitin (psychology, McGill University) uses music as a model for understanding “gene by environment” interactions. Music is multi-modal because the components of discipline can be seen as variations in expertise; and, components of expertise may not be directly related to music (physicality, memory, attention). Though his research is still inconclusive, Levitin’s work shows the depth of the arts as comprised of both field-specific skill sets and broad elements of nature/nurture.

Visual Art as Non-Artificial – and thus Transferable? – Domain of Expertise
Aaron Kozbelt (psychology, CUNY) studies drawing as a flexible skill set that may transfer to other domains that also require that skill set. He has done extensive research on artists and concludes that the arts is a domain that is robust and easily adaptable. Because artists see the world differently, studying the arts may transfer skills of perception, contrast sensitivity, and object recognition, among others.

Effects of Literature
Keith Oatley (psychology, University of Toronto) considered the cognitive benefits of reading fiction and other forms of creative writing. His research has demonstrated that people who read fiction “engage in social simulations and get better at understanding selves” while those who read non-fiction “get better at the subject matter” of what they are reading. Reading fiction not only increases an understanding of self but also increases empathy and teaches skill sets applicable to social interaction.

Benefits Beyond Beauty: Integration of Art and Design into STEM Education and Research
Instead of individual presentations, these panelist elected to briefly introduce themselves and then break the session attendees into groups for conversation. The panelists were Gunalan Nadarajan (Dean of School of Art & Design, University of Michigan), Brian K. Smith (RISD), J.D. Talasek (National Academy of Sciences), and Marina McDougall (Exploratorium, San Francisco). All of these panelists’ work focus on bridging art and science in education at their respective institutions. The outcome of the session demonstrated that, while the two disciplines are beginning an important conversation, there are questions, uncertainties, misconceptions, and above all, fear.

The other lectures I attended made me acutely aware of this disconnect between science and art. Many of the scientists seemed unfamiliar with contemporary art and appeared uncomfortable with works in mediums other than traditional painting or drawing. Most of the scientists did not explore art beyond the visuals necessary for their own work.

One scientist did, however. Tom Kirchhausen of Harvard Medical exclusively studies clathrin coats which are how cells eat (and spit). Working at the molecular level, Kirchhausen realized he needed strong visuals to demonstrate his work and teach cellular structure to his students. Clathrin coats take about a minute to form and then go away. Because there is the element of time in clathrin lifecycles, Kirchhausen has selected video over still images. More importantly, he sets music to these videos. I asked him about his choice in adding sound. He said that he felt the music provided a narrative to that lifecycle that was easy for his students (and others) to miss otherwise. Kirchhausen’s work was one of the few lectures I attended where a scientist used art and technology to not only complement but enhance his research.

from Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine cookbook. He gave a Plenary Lecture at AAAS 2013.
from Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine cookbook. He gave a Plenary Lecture at AAAS 2013. Photo credit Ryan Matthew Smith/Modernist Cuisine, LLC

At the AAAS science librarians session, Denison’s Natural Sciences Librarian Moriana Garcia and I presented The Library as Bridge Between Science and Art. We introduced the history of the disciplines in relationship to Snow’s The Two Cultures and the latest news about the STEAM initiative. We also discussed contemporary studies on creativity in the research process. From here we demonstrated examples of interdisciplinarity at Dension’s library, mentioning collection development and exhibitions. We finished by framing the trend for makerspaces in libraries as part of the STEAM campaign, teaching creativity and inviting serendipitous discovery in the library. Learn more on our Science and Art guide.

Attending the AAAS meeting as an artist and as a librarian was an excellent opportunity for me to gain an understanding of how other disciplines view the arts. The arts are often marginalized in education and while STEAM intends to change that, exploring new pedagogy without artists’ insight could be damaging. Likewise, as I move forward with my research in creativity, talking with those in the STEM disciplines will provide me with a richer understanding of how the library as service and space can support innovation in STEM.