There is a myth that scientists observe only the functional technicalities of their subjects — that the hexagonal pattern on the surface of silicon, or the complex beauty of lava under a microscope, strikes only the eyes of an artist. Princeton's First Annual Art of Science Competition is striving to dispel that myth.
Last fall, two graduate students and two professors from three different departments — Professor Andrew Moore of visual arts, Professor Adam Finkelstein and Alex Halderman '03 of computer science, and Katalin Lovasz of comparative literature — recognized that imagery and technology transcend multiple disciplines. They organized a competition soliciting submissions for an exhibition of scientific art.
The winners will be declared when the exhibit opens in the Friend Center on May 3.
"We've met several people from engineering and elsewhere who draw or paint or photograph," Halderman said.
"What the competition has done has given people a forum and gotten people thinking of their work in aesthetic terms," he added. "People go back to some of the imagery they've produced in their research and say 'Hey this really is beautiful, maybe this can function as art.' I think it really has changed the way some people think."
With the advent of digital imaging, computer technology has steadily become more important to the arts. As a testament to this growing interest in interdisciplinary work, the competition received over 200 submissions.
"We came up with an idea that we would have a competition with images [the artists] never thought would be looked at from an artistic point of view," Lovasz said. He described the submissions as "really very extremely varied — a lot that nobody would have thought of."
In addition to microscopic images, submissions ranged from photographs of African wildebeests from the ecology and evolutionary biology department to vortex imagery from the mechanical and aerospace engineering department. Data visualization, wave simulations, medical illustrations — any image produced or inspired by research was considered.
One student even photographed a sculptural piece.
"She had done a large roomful of basically fibers positioned in various ways," Lovasz said. "[It] was inspired by images of the earth from space."
Lovasz, a graduate student in the comparative literature department, has also worked for OIT for several years. With one foot in computer technology and the other in the humanities, she has observed how alike the two fields can be.
"We do look at the world similarly, using the same devices," she said. "Scientific work and art creation are very similar in that you have to be creative in your thinking and be open to noticing things that you weren't looking for."
She added, "We would like to have more interaction between the artists and the engineers and the scientists on campus."
At the end of this month, the organizers will announce which 40 or 50 submissions to be displayed at the Friend Center.
From that preliminary screening, a jury of four judges — including two professors, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin, and President Tilghman — will select three winners to receive monetary awards: $250 for first place, $154.50 for second, and $95.50 for third.
"The amounts of the award are set up in proportion of the golden ratio which is an important mathematical constant having to do with aesthetics," Halderman said. "Even in the amounts of the prize money, we're trying to combine these ideas."
Lovasz said she and the other organizers were surprised by the high level of interest in the competition.
"But maybe we shouldn't have been surprised, because we thought this was the right moment," she added. "It seemed like a lot of scientists had some images they were really attached to, that they thought were really beautiful. And they were right."
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