Two Branches, One Tree

As I was growing up, I spent countless leisure hours finding my own interests. I remember gazing at maps, sculpting with found objects, and tinkering with prisms and sunlight. At one point, I began obsessively building complex polyhedral structures from wooden skewers, which then led to a series of painted geometric cardboard sculptures. Later in life, I became a particle physicist, eager to glimpse the elegance of mathematics embedded in the basic components of matter. These days, I am cultivating an art practice that echoes my early proto-scientific explorations, and I frequently wonder how art and science are connected, as one often hears they are.

Given my background, it would seem natural for me to embrace the phenomenon of science-based art, or sci-art. However, despite the current widespread interest in the subject, I must admit that, as an artist, I have always avoided making direct scientific references in my work. In general, I do not incorporate images from particle physics into my practice because such images fail to excite my artistic imagination. They already speak volumes to me on a specific technical level, and taking them out of context would diminish the science, in my mind, thus defeating their original purpose.

For this reason, I find that the sci-art I gravitate towards most is made by artists who channel their genuine fascination with science into deep study of a particular topic. And in the course of that study, they transform the scientific material into a vocabulary of their own. Work that appears to bypass this up-front investment tends to strike me as decorative, or unconcerned with its subject. The key for me is the authentic personal response, which inoculates the work against being read as a misrepresentation of the science. In this way, the role of the work is shifted from explaining scientific ideas to communicating what only non-discursive art can: the experience of understanding those ideas.

This sense of personal engagement is also central to scientific research. A scientist's job is to form plausible explanations for one's observations and then to devise new experiments that test those explanations. A thorough analysis of experimental data is not simply a matter of crunching numbers. The goal is to build a comprehensive model of some phenomenon based on existing knowledge, and doing so requires examining the data in great detail from all angles in order to challenge and refine one's understandings. In this spirit, any puzzling features of the data should always be pursued and blind alleys followed, because that is how discoveries are made.

For me, as a scientist, this painstaking and open-ended procedure is essentially an exercise in self-awareness. As I work with data, I also watch myself from above, checking for errors or surprises and assessing the rightness of my decisions. At some point, the analysis will be finished, but that point is not predetermined; I must rely on intuition. At its best, this constant feedback loop produces an intense immersive state that is not unique to science, appearing frequently in creative processes of all types.

As scientists, we develop intimate relationships with our data, and it is only when we have internalized all their details that we gain the ability to fully make sense of them. Conversely, we also worry about the influence of our latent biases on our results. The danger is that, in our (sometimes subconscious) desire to obtain a particular outcome, we may be tempted to over-interpret the data. To reduce this effect, we conduct blind experiments where we collect data and develop analysis methods in deliberate ignorance of the final answer.

These appeals to and accommodations of subjectivity confirm that science is an inescapably human endeavor, just as art is. The sheen of objectivity that scientists overlay on their practice is not meant to deny this human element, but rather to honor the data. Science and art both rest on a foundation of curiosity that is firmly rooted in observation and interpretation but also tempered by an acceptance of uncertainty, a mindset I can trace back to my youthful pastimes.

By declaring a unity of art and science, sci-art plays upon such similarities. However, there is also a fundamental difference: scientific knowledge is derived from quantitative measurements, while works of art are fashioned from the unquantifiable. Thus, rather than being directly linked, I view these two fields as complementary but distinct pursuits with a common creative source, one that is seeded by honestly absorbing the language of one's chosen materials, with the aim of giving clear voice to their song. In both art and science, outcomes are never known in advance, and it is only through the laborious process of wrestling with the work itself that its meanings can begin to be revealed.


Werner Sun

Werner Sun is an artist, physicist, and information technology director based in Ithaca, NY.