Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Great Big ScienceOnline Wrap-Up

I'm still a little wiped out from ScienceOnline 2011. It was the first professional conference I've ever attended, and the constant stimulation and surprise stood in such stark contrast to my daily life that it's taken some time to process. The ideas that struck me, the connections I made, and the insights others offered have been bouncing around in my mind. It's focused my attention on where it needs to be. To list the people who touched me with their kindness and intelligence would surely only result in me leaving someone out, so let me instead thank everyone involved for making it happen. Please, if you care about science, check out ScienceBlogging.org, ScienceOnline2011.com, ScienceSeeker.org. They'll lead you down tremendously satisfying paths.

The most significant part of the experience was my stint co-moderating the Science-Art panel with Glendon Mellow and John Hawks, and I feel that's where I should spend the rest of this post. I had a few ideas in mind, starting points for conversations or bits to add to sympathetic lines of inquiry brought up by Glendon, John, or the attendees. I've discussed these in my previous ScienceOnline special posts. ScienceOnline is an "unconference," and the audience is expected to pipe up as much as the moderators. This was made a bit more complicated by the fact that the session was livestreamed via the ScienceOnline website, requiring anyone who wanted to be heard to speak into a microphone. This wasn't a huge problem, for us though.

People attending the sessions about how science bloggers should hold themselves accountable or how to best communicate difficult concepts generally had strong opinions of their own, potent experiences they wanted to share. I think it's different for the Science-Art panel, and not to the disparagement of the attendees. It's simply a more foreign concept, and I had the feeling that the audience was more interested in its moderators' feelings. Glendon is a fine artist as accomplished in his practice as he is enthusiastic about science. John is an anthropologist and illustrator who has an obvious empathy for his subjects and a desire to share the imperfect truth of the fossils he works with. I'm a graphic designer who finds it a little disconcerting to characterize whathe does the way I've done with those two gentlemen.

It seemed that one major theme was that accuracy is a false god. Glendon freely revels in the license to depart from reality to explore ideas. John discussed his desire to see our extinct Homo cousins depicted as more than grim-faced brutes, a convention that persists to today. He shared examples that delighted the audience, just as the keenest photographer might by capturing a candid moment of joy. Was there evidence that Neandertals smiled and laughed? Well, not quite. Did these depictions engage the audience and stoke their imaginations? Definitely.

I used this as a chance to bring up a recent piece of dinosaur art that speaks strongly to the need to step beyond accuracy. I wrote about it a little over a month ago. It's Brian Engh's Sauroposeidon couple, in full mating display mode. When Matt Wedel encouraged him to think boldly, to look at the outlandish inventions of extant animals and not be afraid to make wild leaps, Brian rose to the occasion and produced one of my favorite pieces of paleoart in recent memory.

Illustration by Brian Engh. Used with his permission.

What I love about this is that it's so much more than a story about these two dinosaurs. It's the story of Brian's love of dinosaurs: the viewer, who is probably unaccustomed to seeing such wild choices (though not implausible ones, it must be said), is forced to consider why Brian made them. It's a line of thought that necessarily leads to the communication methods of living animals.

It's also the story of how we connect to extinct creatures. I think that our willingness to reconstruct lost worlds, to read the clues left by bones and rocks to discover the history of the planet on which we live is one of the most admirable pursuits we engage in. It's poignant, really.

It's not science. And that's okay.

So many of us are infatuated with the natural world. There are the legions of backyard birders. The customer base for airbrushed wolf t-shirts. Heck, even pet owners, who may marvel at the way their cat's body is built for such wondrous gymnastics. I'd include dinosaur lovers with those people. Or protist lovers. The difference in those last examples is that it takes technology and/or logical inference to observe them, which necessarily casts scientists in the role of interpreters: the prophets who reveal these worlds hidden by scale or time's passage. So to like these things is to "like science." By that analogy, to like wolves may as well be to "like documentary filmmaking," since that's the only contact many of us, including many wolf t-shirt wearers I'd imagine, have with the iconic canids.

When I see a well-drawn theropod, I'm entranced by the shapes, the curve of the neck, the excuisite sense of balance, the life in its eyes. The prospect of it as a living creature once again feels more likely. So much of the urge to embark on the journey of science is rooted in that gut-level feeling of wonder, and when done skillfully, the many forms of science-art evoke just that, and the journey begins again.


  1. "Accuracy is a false God."

    That's what I took away from the panel discussion, too.

    Thanks for this recap: it was something I was hoping more people would comment on, namely the need to find voice in visual terms to augment (and humanize?) seas of gray text.

  2. False god - I like that.

    And you are so right about Brian Engh's piece: it's as much about the artist and research as it is about those particular sauropods.

    Really glad John and yourself could be part of the panel, David; the discussion of this piece and John's discussion of the changing face of neandertals are still things I'm ruminating on. Science art changes with attitudes of its creators and the cultural sea they swim in.

    So good to meet you in person! Folks, David is who you would think he is in person: funny, thoughtful and succinct in speech.

  3. I'm not willing to cede "science" to the positivists.


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