Glass Math: An Elegant Lesson in Involving Artists in Science

31 08 2008

When I was seeking images for the cover of Explaining Research, I came across this stunning image of mathematical surfaces rendered as glass sculptures. It was a 2006 AAAS Visualization Challenge Winner.

The image didn’t work out for the cover. My sage advisors pointed out that — as stunning as the image was — the cover needed an illustration that portrayed the subject of the book. But this image taught me a great lesson in the value of involving artists in scientific illustration.

The artist, Luc Benard is not a mathematician, but an artist fascinated with transforming mathematical concepts into an engaging visual form. You can see more of Luc’s art in this gallery on the Renderosity Web site, which is an online digital art community.

The basic images for the glass still life were generated by University of California, Irvine mathematician Richard Palais. Palais and his colleagues have created a Virtual Math Museum that includes a marvelous collection of mathematical art by Benard and other artists.

As you explore these sites, consider the images your own research generates, and how an artist might transform them. It might be worth seeking out a graphic artist whose work you admire and exploring the possibility of commissioning him/her to use your image as the basis for a piece of art. It’s a form of communication too few scientists consider, perhaps because they feel that the science-to-art transformation somehow reduces the authority or credibility of the science. But aesthetics can play a powerful role in communicating science, as described by Felice Frankel in this illustrated talk at the New York Academy of Sciences.

And depicting your research in the form of art might well attract important audiences to your work in a way that no photomicrograph, chart or graph ever could.

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