Saturday, March 10, 2007

Scott: response to Richard Wingate

From: Jill Scott
Date: Sat, 10 Mar 2007 12:41:02 +0100

Yes and thank you for your thoughtfull response.

I agree that literal visualization evidence is a questionable quality, especially if it is related to success. But I also think, that different approaches to communication often help or hinder the understanding of research. From our experience one of the main differences between art and science researchers is in their use of metaphors. This concerns the value of visual poetic metaphors compared to a more literal use of metaphors. Often scientific researchers have not had any formal training in the development of visual metaphors, and educators in these fields tend to use language metaphors because they feel that they minimize ambiguity and seem to be understood by most people. However, language in itself can be very ambiguous and full of clich├ęs and triviality and these metaphors can cause conservative judgements and really affect the levels of respect.

This is an issue that may need to be taken into account in relation to the future of art and science collaboration, because I have the impression the basic scientific researchers are ambiguous about the value of metaphors. A literal interpretation of a metaphor can easily lead to a wrong understanding of the subject at hand. Some examples include; a visual metaphor of an atom as a solar system consisting of a sun (the nucleus) and it's planets (the electrons) how biological evolution corresponds to the metaphor of climbing a mountain in a three dimensional fitness landscape, This lack of training and consequent miss-representation in visual metaphors seems ridiculous when some of the most complex and beautiful metaphors can be found in science.

Instead of using metaphors based on generalizations and language, the contemporary poetic metaphor is more based on thought and conceptual associations. As Lakoff suggests (Lakoff, G. (1993). The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor. artists and writers learn that there are many conceptual types of visual poetic metaphors. There are structural metaphors related to the concept of dimension, whose dimensional associations may change with differing cultures. Another type of metaphor is about orientation and occurs when structures are experienced in terms of spatial orientation. A third might be ontological metaphors, which occur when our experiences are related to abstract phenomena or in terms of concrete textures, forces or objects.

As you said these perspectives may help to reflect the cultural load that we all bring to perception and interpretation. So here are two questions to which I would love to have your response again-

It would be interesting to see what would happen if scientists were to start to explore more poetic metaphors, (rather that those found on the front cover of Nature. What do your think about this?

Could more discussions about metaphors between artists and scientists actually contribute to a highly skilled, critical and reflective artwork, which might gain more respect from science?



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Jerry said...

Hi, Jill,

I am not sure I understood your post in its entirety but I think you were promoting the use of visual metaphors. I think it's interesting that you chose probably the most innovative and explanatory metaphors to support your argument- the epigenetic landscape, which has its foundation in Sewall Wright's fitness landscape.

Here is Waddington's original words regarding it (Strategy of the Genes, 1957):

Although the epigenetic landscape only provides a rough and ready picture of the developing embryo, and cannot be interpreted rigorously, it has certain merits for those who, like myself, find it comforting to have some mental picture, however vague, for what they are trying to think about…

(My words: for example, degree of canalisation can be visualized by the steepness of the sides)

I think this answers your question about the value of visual metaphors. I think everyone can use them because as soon as you draw a picture, as a scientist, you are formalizing a relationship- one that can be measured and quantified...Of course, it is a metaphor, so it has to be recognized as such...but a primary value is that when dealing with nature and organizing principles, you are often dealing with scalable issues, so it is the inherent relationships and ratios with which you're concerned, anyways...You can probably distinguish a "good" metaphor from a "bad" one by how well you can extend it in relationship to the concept you're trying to convey...


Jerry said...


I made a visual metaphor using an inverted picture of a mouse embryo layered onto a Hubble image. I think it's relevant for the discussion and you can see nodes and gradients in the background, which is representative of the causal basis for morphogenesis. I would really like to post it if someone will allow/direct me...