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Category Archives: Science and Art

Transitions, transitions

Quite a few things happened while I was away. If you’re interested, here’s not so short summary of my internet hiatus:

Research area

I think I’m done with bioinformatics. My current research area seems to be located somewhere between systems biology, theoretical biology and information/complex systems theory. I hope to build on Dawkins work, deal with emergence in biology and study subtle effects in biological systems. While I’m not sure if I will have anything interesting to show ever, I don’t have energy to do yet another project which involves programming/web interfaces/dealing with data/annotations/modelling etc. I’m done with analytics, time for synthesis :).

Carrer

Last year I wrote a post dreaming about small non-profit contract research organisation. This model of Research-as-a-Service has materialized in a virtual research institute which we have finally launched few days ago (materialized in something virtual, sign of times? 😉 ). The setup is quite simple – the institute gets a project (or applies for such) and then it searches for researchers/institutions/freelancers which are willing to subcontract parts of the project. We have outsourced not only research part, even money gathering (writing grants, etc.) is done by external company. The setup is quite flexible and pretty transparent – for example, we may represent somebody’s rights, but no intellectual property is owned by the institute. Why such institution? We become a single point of contact for a large and diverse group of scientists, which are willing to do some research for real money but don’t have time and energy to hunt for gigs by themselves. While I have an academic job, I’m in the middle of transition from being a freelancer, to being a jobs provider for freelance scientists. More on that in some other post.

Open science

I plan to spend way more time on advocating open science (all of its flavors), but… in Polish. This step is out of large frustration that even prominent figures in Polish science have no idea about changes in the science internet-aware researchers are watching and creating. Knowledge about even basic things like Open Access is dramatically low in Poland (a number of people here equals OA with low quality publications which have not been peer-reviewed). With few friends, we have a number of projects in the pipeline (for example, we hope to launch a nation-wide, created by professionals  promotional campaign – bilboards, TV commercials etc. – for open science). If any of these actually works, I will let you know if we have any measureable success 😉 .

Labels, labels

Robert Anton Wilson tells a nice story in his book Prometheus Rising:

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge
turtle.

“But, my dear lady,” Professor James asked, as politely aspossible, “what holds up the turtle?”
“Ah,” she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.”
“Oh, I see,” said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?”
“It’s no use, Professor,” said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!”

Another story is a comment from my advisor about putting my real research plans in some proposal (he supports these plans):

The most likely a reaction from reviewers will be something like this: “Nice start, some decent papers, PhD looks good. And then he got crazy.”

I feel like screaming “Labels, labels, labels, all the way!” when facing stiff schemas of what scientists “is” or what artists “is” etc. It’s a hard task by itself to integrate multiple passions and multiple interests into a coherent structure. I don’t need another set of issues because of labels people attach to seemingly creative professions. But limiting myself only to topics consistent with the image of an online scientist became even more frustrating. Therefore expect that this blog (or any other venue I choose to express myself) is going to become a lot more diverse in topics and form.

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Posted by on October 28, 2009 in Comments, Research, Science and Art

 

Science and Art: limits in scientific creativity

This is a follow up to my recent post in this theme. I got encouraging (thank you!) and interesting responses to that post, some of which deserve a highlight. First quote comes from Gregory Lent, an artist:

art is simply listening inwards and being aware of what you feel. true of both art appreciation, and art making …. the permission to do that is more an emotional allowing than any sort of training or “creativity” … it is merely conscious sensitivity …

scientists have this ability, of course, but are too wedded to the intellect to allow it to emerge, or to be part of the daily flow …

The next one is from Steven Grand, AI researcher:

The thing is, all creative thinkers use some kind of analogy. At the artistic end of the scale these analogies tend to be loose, suggestive metaphors. At the scientific end of the scale we build mathematical models. But in between come many shades of analogy, some more concrete and some metaphorical; some symbolic and some more touchy-feely.

The trick, of course, is to be able to shift freely up and down the continuum as required. Not all artists or scientists can do this, sadly. Many artists are unable to anchor their thoughts in reality and many scientists are too scared to let go of certainty.

And finally, a comment from Michael Nielsen, theoretical physicist (quantum information theorist to be precise), posted over at FriendFeed:

(…) I don’t think particularly verbally when I’m doing research. Not visually either. Instead, it’s a mishmash of spatial, kinesthetic, visual and linguistic; very, very hard to describe. In any case, I don’t think I fit your description. I suspect a lot of theoretical physicists don’t.

And actually I could end this post here, as these quotes nicely complement each other. However, there’s one more thing I wanted to add.

After noticing how limited my thinking patterns are, I suspect that there’s a lot of mental barriers for creative thinking in sciences, that are “inherited” during the training process (mainly the PhD studies). There’s quite a lot of “outside” barriers too (see brilliant post by Jean-Claude  on ego-less science), but my feeling is that great ideas don’t appear too often because we simply rarely fall off the track to find them. The times of Ansel Adams who took some of his most beatiful photographs from or in close proximity to his car are gone – science became a crowded tourists destination with thousands of eyes looking for a good picture from exactly the same spot.

I’m very happy where the topic has lead me. The whole theme of intersection between Science and Art becomes a quest for exploring limits in scientific creativity.

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Posted by on April 14, 2009 in Science and Art

 

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Science & Art: what language do you use?

TED 08
Image by cr8it via Flickr

I’ve just realized where is the important difference between artists and scientists – and probably the biggest challenge of the merging or communicating between these two areas. When we do research, we tend to think in words. When we paint, we tend to think in colors. When we compose, we tend to think in sounds. Our right hemisphere thinks in colors, images, feelings or sounds, while the left thinks almost exclusively in words/in symbols. This is of course an over-generalization, but still I think it’s very important point when discussing relations between science and art. Putting right hemisphere experience into words is so difficult task, that most of such attempts sounds like gibberish. Have you watched TED talk “My stroke of insight”? Jill Bolte Taylor shared her first person observations from the stroke, which turned off her left (logical and analytical) hemisphere. While she did great job (also of not going too much into details), still some commenters were complaining about scientific quality of these observations (or that she sounded like she were on drugs, which is by the way not a coincidence).

If that sound too abstract to you, consider history of discovery of benzene. Kekulé had a day dream of snake  seizing its own tail – and interpreted it correctly. And I believe this is not a single example, where solution to a scientific problem presents itself to a researcher in some non-linguistic form (or rather right hemisphere sends solution to left hemisphere). However, such stories are rare for a couple of reasons: we are not usually aware of the fact that “artistic” hemisphere can “solve” scientific problems, we lack skills to identify and translate such messages, and finally it seems unprofessional to admit that we had a “vision” that led to a successful solution.

I’m not sure about correctness of these speculations. It has been quite difficult to get to that point, exactly because of limits of linguistic description of the Art (I rarely can stand an artist’s statement), so it’s likely I’ve made some mistakes on the way. Therefore I would appreciate any help along the way.

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Posted by on January 27, 2009 in Science and Art, Visualization

 

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