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How to Fuse Art and Science: A Symbiosis of Observation and Creativity

Cover image that says How to fuse art and science: a symbiosis of observation and creativity

Science and art—two disciplines that seem to be far apart at the first glance. Yet, upon closer inspection, we realise that there are many similarities and overlapping skills needed in both domains. Both rely on keen observation and the ability to reduce complex topics into their individual components and their relationships, to see the trees instead of the forest.

Here, we explore the symbiosis of observation and creativity, written by Dr Philipp Dexheimer and Dr Elisabeth Kugler; two scientists first, artists second, and forever science artists.

Observing Parallels

While some might argue that science and art are two separate disciplines, we start to re-appreciate that they are actually more intertwined than they appear at first glance. And we say re-appreciate, because hundreds of years ago, be it Leonardo da Vinci (15th century), Robert Hooke (18th century), and Santiago Ramón y Cajal (20th century)—the overlap between science and art was well established.

Leonardo da Vinci’s work studying muscles of the human body.
Example of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, studying muscles of the human body.

Many examples of historical figures excelling in observational skills in both domains exist. But da Vinci, Hooke, and Cayal are probably the best known as the lack of photography in their lifetimes led to them not merely producing scientific drawings, but truly pieces of art.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal drew microscopic cells to understand nerve cells and Robert Hooke drew observations of insects and plants in the book “Micrographia”. Now in the 21st century, “Micrographia” is appreciated more as art rather than just science.

But the person that really showcases the liaison of science and art was Leonardo da Vinci. His observations of water and experiments with fluid dynamics, such as seeds in rivers, allowed him to understand how blood swirls in the heart. Also, Leonardo's studies of light and shadow in nature led him to develop ‘sfumato’, a painting technique that produces soft transitions between colors, mimicking the behavior of light.

Synergy in Skills

It was during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries that there was a pursuit for the scientific method to be more formalized and specialized, and that meant that science and art started to drift apart.

In our work as scientists and artists, we often do not only observe, but take notes, scribble, draw, and think about problems in a wider context. Having a pen and piece of paper at hand, means we can truly work through a problem by decomposing it into its components and understanding their relationship—this is the case for science and art alike. For example, when studying a cell, we want to understand it’s individual components, such as nucleus, mitochondria, and Golgi apparatus. And when drawing for example a landscape painting, we take a similar approach to understanding mountains, trees, and fields. In fact, both outstanding art as well as outstanding science do not merely describe a subject or phenomenon; they dive into the very essence of it.

Why should scientists care?

In today's competitive academic landscape, integrating art into science can boost the attention research gets, ultimately enhancing scientist's careers by increasing visibility and appeal.

Artistic elements like graphics and animations make complex findings engaging, which not only attracts more attention from peers and the public, but also leads to more citations and funding opportunities. Moreover, blending art with science sparks innovation. Visualizing concepts can lead to novel insights and experimental approaches, encouraging out-of-the-box thinking. Art in science is more than an aesthetic choice; it's a strategic tool for innovation, effective communication and visibility in the research community.

One of the best ways to reach a non-expert audience and the general public is to spar interest with beauty (Barresi et al., 2021). This was recently showcased by a science art exhibition developed by Zeeks in Austria. The exhibition served as an excellent opportunity to share science in a new way and have a wider public participation. Over two days of the opening event, over 100 people attended.

Photograph collage of a science art exhibition by Zeeks

To increase longevity of impact, the in-person exhibition was followed by a virtual exhibition on social media.

Poster for the Virtual Science Art Exhibition by Zeeks

How Artistic Insights Cause Scientific Revelations

Visual art and data visualisation can catalyze our scientific understanding. Not only can visuals help to understand information, but also make abstract concepts more relatable and accessible.

One example of this was Elisabeth’s own work, where she shares her fascination for the nervous system and blood vessels by transforming her scientific data into visual art pieces. She achieves this using high-end microscopes and computer programming to turn 3D scans of blood vessels into 2D art. Through transforming her data she not only shares the beauty of science, but also discovered a previously undescribed blood vessel cell behaviour.

Scientific illustration of blood vessels

Scientific illustration from Zeeks
Photos of a Zeeks science art exhibition, inspired by 3D scientific data (Photos by Maeggi Bachler).

Another example of art and science colliding, is this simple yet profound DNA pencil-on-paper sketch by Francis Crick in 1953. This was the year he, together with Jim Watson, unravelled the structure of life's most fundamental molecule. There is something magical about looking at initial sketches, knowing what they led to. Some initial sketches have literally marked the starting points of amazing discoveries in history, such as these DNA sketches or the initial sketches of Darwin’s phylogenetic trees.

Sketch of DNA double helix by Francis Crick, next to an ink and watercolor version of DNA.
The DNA double helix. On the left in pencil, original drawn by Francis Crick (1953), preceding the discovery of life's most vital molecule. On the right, a re-imagination of this iconic sketch by Philipp Dexheimer using ink & watercolor.

More prominent examples, are for example Ernst Haeckel's "Kunstformen der Natur" (“Art Forms in Nature”) influenced biology in the late 19th century by visually revealing the complexities of organisms. His detailed drawings of microscopic organisms and embryos in different developmental stages advanced biological classification and highlighted evolutionary connections as well as phylogenetic understanding.

Scientific illustrations by Ernst Haeckels
Illustrations from Ernst Haeckels “Kunstformern der Natur”. From left to right: “Ascidiae, Discomedusae, Stephoidea”

Case Study: A Historic Example of Drawings That Influencing Science

Scientifically, Haeckel is best known for his recapitulation theory, stating that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". His theory was considerably influenced by his collection of meticulous drawings of how embryos develop in embryogenesis. His theory postulated that the embryonic development of an organism (its ontogeny) follows the same path as the evolutionary history of its species (its phylogeny). Haeckel's work, emphasizing nature's aesthetic beauty, also narrowed the divide between science and public perception, inspiring biologists, artists, and naturalists alike with a deeper appreciation of natural diversity.

Scientific illustrations of embryonic development in vastly different organisms
George Romanes's 1892 copy of Ernst Haeckel's drawings of animal embryonic development.

A contemporary example for the synergy of visualization and scientific insight is Janet Iwasa, a molecular biologist who specializes in scientifically accurate animations of complex molecular processes. She runs the Animation Lab at the University of Utah and her work on subjects like HIV mechanics and mitochondrial functions not only offers striking visuals but also advances scientific understanding. According to Iwasa, every animation is itself a hypothesis - a model of what scientists think is going on, based upon multiple sources of empirical evidence.

The animated models can help researchers understand a particular process, and sometimes even reveal flaws in scientific models. Often it is only in the process of attempting to accurately depict the three-dimensional  interactions of molecules that one realizes that the preconceived notion of this interaction was flawed. The impact of Iwasa’s work is highlighted by the numerous peer-reviewed scientific articles she keeps co-authoring in the field of structural biology, with her animations being an integral part of the scientific insight. Her approach exemplifies how artistic visualization of biological processes can profoundly enhance scientific research.

Together, it is clear that science and art are tightly intertwined and that there is an enduring impact of observation, creativity, and the synergy of skills. Now, more than ever, there is encouragement for continued exploration of the rich intersections between art and science.

Author Biographies

Dr Philipp Dexheimer 

Science Artist & Visualization Specialist

Philipp Dexheimer photo

As an artist at heart and a scientist in the mind, Philipp’s creations are inspired by the concepts and molecular aesthetics of Nature. Being passionate about visualizing complex ideas, he combines his research background and love for art to effectively communicate science to a broad audience. Philipp is always on the lookout for new collaborative opportunities and ventures transforming scientific insight into art that informs and inspires.

Dr Elisabeth Kugler  Director of Zeeks - Corporate Science Communication

Elisabeth Kugler photo

As a biomedical image analyst, Elisabeth has always worked at the interface of biology and computational biology. In 2022, Elisabeth founded Zeeks, where she and her team help scientists plan, write, and illustrate their research and innovation content. Zeeks specializes in life sciences, microscopy, and image analysis, working with companies such as Bruker Luxendo or ibidi GmbH.


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