Art illuminates the beauty of science and could inspire the next generation of scientists, young and old


Scientists have often invited the public to see what they see, using everything from engraved wood blocks To electron microscopes to explore the complexity of scientific enterprise and the beauty of life. Share these visions through illustrations, photographs and videos, allowed laypersons to explore a range of discoveries, from new species of birds to the inner workings of the human cell.

Winner of the 2018 BioArt competition, this image shows the intestinal villi of a mouse.
Amy Engevik / BioArt, CC BY-NC-ND

Like a neuroscience and bioscience researcherI know scientists are sometimes labeled as white coats obsessed with charts and graphs. What is missing from this stereotype is their passion for science as a mode of discovery. This is why scientists frequently turn to impressive visualizations as a way to explain the inexplicable.

The BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition, administered by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, shares images rarely seen outside the lab with the public to introduce and educate laypersons about the wonders often associated with biological research. BioArt and similar competitions reflect the long history of using imagery to elucidate science.

A historical and intellectual moment

The Renaissance, a period in European history between the 14th and 17th centuries, breathed new life into science and art. He brought together the nascent discipline of natural History – a field of investigation observing animals, plants and fungi in their ordinary environment – with an artistic illustration. This allowed for a broader study and classification of the natural world.

Art played a role in the advancement of the natural sciences during the Renaissance, such as the human anatomical studies of Rubens.
Peter Paul Rubens / The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

Artists and artistic naturalists have also been able to advance approaches to the study of nature by illustrating the findings of early botanists and anatomists. Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, for example, offered remarkable insight into human anatomy in his famous anatomical drawings.

This art-science formula was further democratized in the 17th and 18th centuries as a the printing process has become more sophisticated and enabled early ornithologists and anatomists to publish and distribute their elegant designs. Early popular entries included “John James Audubon”Birds of america“And Charles Darwin”The origin of the species”- revolutionary at the time for the clarity of their illustrations.

The editors quickly followed with well-received field guides and encyclopedias detailing observations of what was seen through early microscopes. For example, a Scottish encyclopedia published in 1859, “Chambers’s Encyclopedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People“, sought to extensively explain the natural world through wood illustrations of mammals, microorganisms, birds and reptiles.

These posts responded to the public’s demand for more news and perspectives on the natural world. People formed societies of amateur naturalists, hunted fossils, and enjoyed trips to local zoos or menageries. In the nineteenth century, natural history museums were built around the world to share scientific knowledge through illustrations, models and real-life examples. Objects on display ranged from taxidermized animals to human organs preserved in liquid.

Wilhelm Roentgen's x-ray of his wife's hand
The first x-ray image was the hand of the wife of x-ray discoverer Wilhelm Roentgen.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen / Brockhaus Multimedia via Wikimedia Commons

What started out as hand drawings has transformed over the past 150 years with the help of new technologies. The advent of sophisticated imaging techniques such as X-rays in 1895, electron microscopes in 1931, 3D modeling in the 1960s and magnetic resonance imaging or MRI in 1973 made it easier for scientists to share what they saw in the lab. In fact, Wilhelm Roentgen, a physics professor who first discovered x-rays, made the first human x-ray image with his wife’s hand.

Today, scientific publications, including Nature and The scientist have made a habit of sharing their favorites with readers. Visualizations, whether through photography or video, are yet another method for scientists to document, test and affirm their research.

Science, art and education K-12

These science visualizations have found their way into classrooms as K-12 schools add science photographs and videos to lesson plans.

Art museums, for example, have developed art-based science programs to give students an overview of what science looks like. It can help promote scientific culture, increasing both their understanding of basic scientific principles and their critical thinking skills.

Scientific culture is particularly important now. During a pandemic in which misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has spread, a better understanding of natural phenomena could help students learn to make informed decisions about disease risk and its transmission . Teaching science literacy equips students with the skills to assess complaints scientists and public figures, whether it’s COVID-19, the common cold or climate change.

Hindquarters of chicken embryos.
Winner of the BioArt 2020 competition, this image shows hind limbs from chicken embryos. The left limb is normal, while the right is a mutant. The yellow stain indicates the presence of a protein that marks the progenitors of bone and cartilage development.
Christian Bonatto / BioArt, CC BY-NC-ND

However, scientific knowledge seems to be stagnating. The National Assessment of Educational Progress 2019 measures the scientific knowledge and scientific inquiry skills of U.S. public school students in grades 4, 8, and 12 on a scale of zero to 300. Scores have stagnated for all years from 2009 to 2019, hovering between 150 and 154 .

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A survey of kindergarten to grade 12 teachers shows that 77% of elementary school teachers spend less than four hours a week on science. And the 2018 National Science and Mathematics Education Survey found that Kindergarten to Grade 3 students on average receive only 18 minutes of science teaching per day, compared to 57 minutes in math.

Making science more visual can make learn science from an early age Easier. It could also help students understand scientific models and develop skills such as teamwork and communication of complex concepts.

Deepening of scientific knowledge

The BioArt Scientific Image and Video Competition was created 10 years ago to both give scientists an outlet to share their latest research and to allow a wider audience to see biosciences from a researcher’s perspective.

Electron microscopic image of HeLa cells infected with Listeria monocytogenes.
Winner of the BioArt 2020 competition, this image shows HeLa cells infected with the common but deadly foodborne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes.
Arandeep Dhanda / BioArt, CC BY-NC-ND

What is unique about the BioArt competition is the diversity of submissions over the past decade. After all, the biosciences encompass the wide range of disciplines within the life sciences. The winners of the BioArt 2021 competition range from developing eye of zebrafish embryo to the shell of a kind of 96-million-year-old Helochelydrid fossil turtle.

I have been a judge for the BioArt competition for the past five years. My appreciation for the science behind the images is often overwhelmed by my enjoyment for their beauty and technical competence. For example, photography using polarized light, which filters light waves to oscillate in one direction instead of multiple directions, allows scientists to reveal what otherwise hidden interiors of samples look like.

Whether today or in the past, science is elucidating the foundations of our world, both in miniature and on a large scale. I hope that visual lighting of scientific concepts and processes can advance science literacy and give students and the general public access to a deeper understanding of the natural world that they need to be informed citizens. That these images and videos often look good is an added bonus.

This video from 2021 BioArt winner Thomas Gebert shows a human intestinal organoid infected with rotavirus.

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