Where wonder exists

There are many things that don’t go well together.

Water and cellphones. 

Superman and kryptonite.

Bare feet and LEGOs.

Art and science?

At first glance it might seem art and science are polar opposites too. According to the Oxford Dictionary, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” while science is defined as “the state of knowing; systematized knowledge; knowledge obtained and tested through the scientific method

But give it a second glance.

Darwin and Doodles

A young Darwin sat on a log, a rough notebook of parchment open on his lap. Around him, finches flitted from tree to tree, chittering away at each other. He wrote and sketched. On to the next island. More sketching, more notes. Plants and insects and birds. Thoughts and ramblings.

These notes and sketches, a simple ‘I think’ scribbled above a series of lines, branching out from a single node–they would eventually form the framework for what is one of the most transformative theories in biology: evolution.

While perhaps most ‘famous’, Darwin wasn’t alone in his use of art to observe the world. Henry Bates drew butterflies and insects he observed in the Amazon. Alaskan explorer, John Muir, meticulously detailed and sketched his observations of glaciers and mountains as he traveled.

Henry Bates’ field journal with watercolors of insects and notes. (photo: Natural History Museum)
Page from John Muir’s Field Journal. Transcription of text: “Sketch: 2nd from head Cataract [Glacier], Surprise [Glacier], 3rd from head of Harriman Inlet from lower camp on right side. at Homer P.O. on sand spit. Concluded this morning July 1st to sail to Kodiak Island instead of to Cook’s Inlet to give the bear hunters a more promising field… Fine views of Iliamna Redoubt and other volcanoes, the former smoking and steaming distinctly at times; [glaciers] on them [snowing] to the top. The 4 [peaked] [mountains] broad smooth solid white slope, surrounded by very sharp lower [peaks] and peaklets, the most beautiful icy and interesting of all the [mountains] of the Alaska peninsula” {source}

I love these stories, and looking back at examples of early explorer’s field journals because it reminds me of something that often gets overlooked—science isn’t all about memorizing facts, and categorizing knowledge that already exists into flashcards and dichotomous trees.

This might be how science is often taught in schools. But in practice, good science and new discoveries come from observations. It comes from a moment of awe that sparks a question, which is then explored with objective and systemic approaches.

In the same way, good art comes from observations. It can evoke a moment of awe that sparks a question. It can take the form of sketches, music, spoken or written words, dancing….all of these forms of art stem from observing the world around us.

Photograph on canvas from her “Walking in Antarctica” project, Helen Glazer and First lady of Maryland, Yumi Hogan at Opening Reception August 3 2017, Baltimore Washington Marshall International Airport.

Today this partnership between art and exploration/science is still celebrated and encouraged through programs like the “Artist Residency” at an Antarctic field station, artists working along-side Narwhal research in the Arctic, or the Artist in Residence at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in AK.

Your Turn: We can all be artists. We can all be scientists.

You might be thinking, this is all well and good but I’m no artist, or I’m not a scientist!

Let’s do a little experiment:

What would it look like if I said “Draw a shell”? For each reader I’d get a different interpretation of a shell—some very basic, some stylized, some hard and inky, others soft and airy.

Apparently for a kid who grew up in the midwest, my concept of a shell is from the Little Mermaid’s wardrobe.

Now, what would if look like if you found a shell on the beach/garden, and I asked you to draw THAT shell. Not your idea of a shell. Or the emotions of a shell. THAT SHELL.

You turn it over in your hand. You feel the soft inner and rough outer sides. You notice the nicks, the curves, the ridges and rings. These observations, highlighted through the task of trying to draw a specific shell, spark a question you hadn’t considered when you were just thinking of a generic shell.

Maybe you wonder ‘Why do scallops have a curved side and a flat side to their shells?’ ‘Why do snail shells like the one above have rings?’ ‘What might happen if the materials for growing shells are less available in the environment?’

…guess what, you are now both an artist, and a scientist.

Treat every day as the Voyage of the Beagle

I wanted to do a blog about this topic because this summer is a great time to start exploring our world around us, even if it is 6 ft apart from others or from our windows.

Do you have a pencil? Some paper? Great news! You can start your own field journal.

Check out Kim’s Nature Drawings–an amazing local Homer AK artist, naturalist, and explorer. Her website has ideas of nature journals, video tutorials, and she also offers classes/workshops if you’re in the area!

Observe the squirrels in your garden, the plants growing from the cracks in the sidewalk, the way the clouds look before and after a thunderstorm. Record the sounds of the birds that are in your neighborhood on your cell-phone. Join in online for a #SundayFishSketch with our ASLC #Telequarium. Be open to gaining new insights; to seeing the world not as you think you know it and asking questions about why things form, function, or interact they way they do.

Not everyone can draw a photo-realistic shell, and not every painting will capture the objective ‘data’ of a subject. But everyone can observe, question, explore, and be open to new ways of looking at life.

This is not a scientific painting of a seal, but the colors capture the silty waters near a glacier, the calm and serenity of seals hauled out alone. Maybe you start to wonder “why is the seal doing this behavior, “the banana”? Photo Credit: A. Bishop

Find that place where science and art blend together.

Where wonder exists.

Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop

Photo Source for feature image

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