UC Davis Magazine The Art of Science

Click on our examples of artful scientific images for larger views and explanations.

Scientists who have given the idea some thought see striking similarities between art and science. "Science and art are complementary expressions of the same collective subconscious of society," says UC Davis physics professor Gergely Zimanyi.

Zimanyi, who studies the theory of superconductivity and quantum phenomena, pointed out the intriguing parallels in a talk he gave earlier this year in Hungary to a gathering of physicists and artists. Both disciplines aim to describe nature in the abstract, be it with numbers and words or colors and shapes. Both try to reveal previously hidden relationships. Artists and scientists both share extraordinary abilities to visualize and find patterns in abstract and complex ideas, Zimanyi says.

Even more provocative is the notion that art is a crucial preverbal stage in understanding how the world works. "There is in the artist's vision a peculiar prescience that precedes the physicist's equations," writes San Francisco surgeon Leonard Shlain in Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light. "Artists have mysteriously incorporated into their works features of a physical description of the world that science later discovers."

Physicists like Einstein began to grapple with relativistic notions of space and time and artists like Duchamp created sculptures and paintings that challenged the prevailing perceptions of time and space only after humanity at large was confronted with technological changes on an unprecedented scale at the turn of the century. Distances seemed to become shorter with cross-country trains and mass-produced automobiles and even irrelevant with the telephone, which could connect people instantly regardless of distance. And when the country's clocks were adjusted to support a unified time table for transcontinental trains, time ceased to be an absolute and instead seemed a product of our perception and choosing.

Zimanyi predicts a new convergence of science and art with the latest technological changes made possible by computers. "When a modern scientist's program spews out a million data, in what sense is the problem solved?" he says. "Only visualization can possibly help in comprehending such a massive output. This is why many scientists are using computers to better visualize their work."

Some scientists are even teaming up with artists to form renaissance teams to push their computers' potential to exhibit the data. Remarkably, the end result is often quite beautiful, so much so that scores of artists now choose the computer to generate their imagery. "In short," Zimanyi says, "there is a genuine possibility that the century-old rift between science and art may again be narrowed, this time by the advent of computers and video techniques."

But many scientific images already share an "artful" quality. Here is a collection of images from a range of scientific disciplines across campus, representing a diverse array of technologies, from microscopy to mathematical modeling. Only time will tell if they contain the clairvoyance of art.

-- Carol Cruzan Morton