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Beautiful Proof? Scientific Images, Art, and Evidence

Scientific images occupy an interesting place at the intersection of art and science.

Published August 19, 2013

Beautiful Proof? Scientific Images, Art, and Evidence

"After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well." -Einstein

Scientific images are often beautiful as well as informative.  Is science artistic? Are images evidence? Experts weigh in from scientific and artistic perspectives. For more on the intersection between art and science, check out this podcast.

Maryam Zaringhalam is a genetics and molecular biology PhD candidate at Rockefeller University and the author of the blog ArtLab.

I think scientists and artists have similar ways of thinking about the world. Science is based on observation and questions, and a lot of art is as well.  Some of the most interesting questions come from artists. I happen to use a pipette instead of a paintbrush, but it's all about trying to understand.

There's a lot of emphasis in science on the image. The way I was taught to read scientific papers is figure by figure.  Seeing is believing, at the end of the day. The power of images is that it's right in front of you. Art is this really universal means of concept delivery. An image can act as a catalyst to create awareness around an issue or an area of research, and now you can send images out into the world immediately and reach huge numbers of people. It's an amazing tool for science communication. It would be lovely if more scientists thought of communicating their work to the public through images.

People think of science as way up in an ivory tower because some of the concepts we deal with can seem really abstract, but you can show an image and all of a sudden it becomes more real. One of the biggest challenges of teaching science is that it's hard to convince people that it's more than what you learn in the classroom, where ideas can seem boring or intangible. The images can be so inspiring. You can see something and realize, "Wow! This is inside me—or all around me, or way, way off in the distant universe. It's real and means something!" And sometimes, it's crazy beautiful.

It's also really interesting to think about the ethics of scientific images. A huge issue is knowing how to balance what you can manipulate. It's so easy to edit images, and sometimes you might want to tweak something to make it clearer or more compelling.  But it's so important to make sure you're not crossing any lines into falsification.

Ivan Oransky, MD, is the vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, and co-founder and writer for the blog Retraction Watch.

Image manipulation is one of the most common reasons for retraction that we see on Retraction Watch. Sometimes, duplicated images are just unintentional or sloppy. When we see investigations uncovering images in papers from unrelated experiments that just happen to prove the main points of a paper, however, it's hard to imagine the authors having done that for any reason other than making their results look better than they are. Fortunately for science—and unfortunately for fraudsters—the same tools that allow image manipulation allow its detection.

Nina Samuel, PhD, is a historian of science and art. She is the curator of the exhibits The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking and My Brain Is in My Inkstand: Drawing as Thinking and Process, opening in November at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

There is a famous quote of British mathematician G.H. Hardy who stated in his essay, A Mathematician's Apology, "Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics." I dare to argue that most scientists have experienced a similar feeling—that a "beautiful" (or an especially simple and at the same time aesthetically compelling) theorem or equation seems to be more likely to be true (or to embody a "higher truth") than an overly complicated or, for example, asymmetric or "ugly" one.

The aesthetic feeling that guides these choices or the design of scientific theories is no different from the aesthetic feeling that artists use to compose their works. This doesn't mean that the result—an artwork or a scientific theory—should be confused or understood as the same. But I would not say that the feeling of beauty itself does differ in scientific or non-scientific contexts.

I would say that images can make scientific ideas or theories emerge. Art and science are not the same, but the methods of art and science come very close in the moment of creation. One could maybe ask: How could science have emerged without image making at all? The observation of nature can be understood as one of the most important foundations of science. The attempt to depict, to describe, to record, to classify and to understand the observed through the production of pictorial representations is one of the most elementary operation of science. For example, the analysis of shapes and forms, the classification of morphologies, is the most important method of sciences like biology or anatomy. Representations make it possible that things in nature can migrate to conceptual realms, that they can be written about, that they can be pointed at, and, most importantly, that they can start to exist as "scientific things." And this doesn't stop at the visible world surrounding us. Making the invisible visible is another basic operation in science (think for example of the micro- and the telescope, or of x-rays).

Producing evidence is one of the basic features of images in general. This becomes clear if one considers the etymology of the Latin term evidentia, which can be translated as "obviousness/vividness," or the quality of being manifest. Based on that root, what becomes "evident" in the first place is that which comes before the eyes—what we see. The term "eye witnessing" is very telling in this sense. Also, for example, think of the history of photography. Photographs have been used as legal evidence since their invention.

However, the relation between evidence and a proof in science is more complex. Often scientists that I met told me that the "feeling of evidence" was triggered through an image, but that the proof itself had to be done in an analytic way or based on equations. This is especially true for mathematics, where images are mostly not regarded as proofs, but they can surely lead to a proof.

With the digital revolution, the question of the image—in science but also in society—has become more urgent than ever. Our world is not only full of images, but also our decisions are based on them, e.g. whom we should admire, how we should behave, what we should desire to possess, and even whom we should start a war with—all these things are based on images used as evidences and strategies to make us belief. This is obviously dangerous if images are not understood in the right way, that is, as representations of reality and never as the reality itself.

The main challenge, I would say, isn't the fact that we can use Photoshop or other digital tools to manipulate images (the history of the 'manipulation' of images is as long as the history of images themselves), but it is their overpowering presence everywhere, and their free migration and floatation. It is the fact that they can easily become economic or political weapons. Images can get out of control. Therefore, what we need today is an education that helps us to never lose the distance in front of the images. This distance will make us understand that the representation and the represented are never the same. We need an education of the eye that fosters critical thinking.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.