Is Sci art a valid mode of sci-comm? Role of the context

What is sci-art? Sci-art is science-inspired art form. Unlike science visualization, it may or may not represent scientific data and concepts in their most austere form. In fact, it may even enhance and (re)present the scientific knowledge by introducing artistic dimensions and provoking an engagement with the audience. Sci-art therefore deeply deals with the aspects of curiosity and exploration.

Art, whether inspired or not by science, functions by either being a replica of the subject, or having elements that make an aesthetic composition, by having meaningful and relatable contexts, or evoking emotions and memory. How we perceive, and interpret, art is relevant. These might be more anecdotal and subjective experiences. Whereas science is often an attempt to evoke an objective response and meaning to problems around us. Hence, it is useful to reflect on the space where science and art meet.

On an exciting note, there are sci-art competitions being organized by several institutes and funding bodies both in India and abroad. Nikon organizes annual photomicrography competitions to celebrate art in science. These images, derived through tedious and laborious ways, have context from science. Apart from that, the aesthetic potential of these artworks is no less than the scientific potential of these images.

In discussion with Ashley Taylor on a different platform, Jeff W. Lichtman of the Brainbow fame argues that stripped of their scientific meaning, scientific data and images can be considered art. This appreciation relies on aesthetic and evocative qualities of the images.

Brainbow by Lichtman, 2008, Shared from Wikicommons.

An online search for agar art will introduce you to images that replicate Van Gogh’s landscapes to tree of life. Unsurprisingly, the scientific community celebrates these artworks, as they are equipped with the context of methodology and can appreciate the effort put into creating detailed artwork.

Cell to Cell by Mehmet Berkmen and Maria Peñil Cobo. American Society for Microbiology Agar Art Contest 2015, People’s Choice / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Similarly, Genesee each year showcases Drosophila art on its website and merchandise. Here, researchers express their love for the Drosophila animal model in various styles and media. These artworks may fulfill some or all of the ‘functions’ of art. Often, they originate from the context of the research work that are being conducted in the laboratory. A trained audience is able to relate to these contexts, having had exposure to Drosophila themselves.

Artwork: Dr. Deepti Trivedi. She has been working with fruit flies for almost 2 decades. She also enjoys the creative freedom that art offers and uses it in various forms.

Other science artists like Sandra Black Culliton make protein and DNA sequence-inspired artwork. The scientific training of the artist provides the context to these images.

My microscopist friends tell me that when they acquire signals in grey scale and read the data, it is after pseudo-coloring them that they ‘feel’ a ‘delight’ in their work. Enhancing the quality of the image also the appeals to the of the eye of the experimenter itself. In this case, aesthetics lends additional value to context.

Fruiting bodies of a myxomycyte converted in black and white and pseudo colored versions to illustrate the aesthetic and artistic value color brings to scientific data. Wikicommons. CC BY-SA 4.0

While these responses describe what one would get from a laboratory-trained audience, while discussing sci-comm, one has to pay attention also to the responses from an untrained but interested audience. Such audience often is drawn to sci-art because of its aesthetic and evocative potential. Gazing at the art work, they might be able to form novel inferences based on their context, and/or be riddled with curiosity.

In my conversation with Ina Schuppe Koistinen a few years ago, she mentioned how people find stars and galaxies and metaphors of big bang within huge watercolor canvases of cells that she created. These conversations became as a starting point for her to explain about cells. Together, the audience and the artist wondered about how the forms at two vastly different spatial scales are similar.  Here the science-artist and the audience were within the same physical space and mused together about the fundamentals of nature.

In my experience in sharing my own sci-art work, I invariably observe inquisitiveness in my audience about the work. Unsurprisingly, deep conversations about the underlying science ensue from there. Even as an audience member, looking at the work of fellow sci-artists, I have had discussions on metaphors and symbols and the processes employed in their artwork (in their absence) with other non-specialized friends.

Work by the author based on EM images of a neuron from her collaborator, Dr. Rituparna Chakrabarti.

These anecdotes suggest that while aesthetics is a powerful hook to pull the audience, the right context either in the form of description or presence of the scientist/the artist around can build new dialogues and narratives around science. These images need not be stripped off their associated science. With the context, they harbor a value stronger than what forms and composition provide.

To summarize, the intention of sci-comm by Burns (Burns et al, 2002) defines a useful vowel analogy, aeiou: awareness, entertainment, interest, opinion and understanding.

And, sci-art flows towards entertainment and can lead to other functions as well.

In conclusion, sci-art, with the right context, is sci-comm.


1.  Author believes in potential of sci-art as art itself.

2.  While sci-art can encompass several artforms, this discussion is restricted to visual artforms.

3.  The artworks discussed are done by scientist-artists. This discussion does not include work done by non-specialized artists who draw inspiration from science. During their research, they acquire expertise in their subject of interest.


Reference and links:

Burns, T.W., O’Connor, D.J. and Stocklmayer, S.M. (2003). Science communication: a contemporary definition. Public Understand. Sci. 12 (2003) 183–202.

Ipsa Jain is a science communicator and postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Bangalore. She blogs at

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