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Popular Science: Colloquium – Science – Visualisation – Perception

In late June the first one-day gathering about the issues of visualisation in science took place at the Department of Philosophy and History of Science, intended for both a scientific and non-professional audience. The event was organized by the department staff members (Lucie Čermáková, Eliška Fulínová, Tereza Liepoldová and Roman Figura) in collaboration with Barbora Müllerová from the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem. Filip Jaroš (University of Hradec Králové) and Doc. Karel Stibral (Masaryk University in Brno) also took part in the event.

Since the beginning of modern times, visualisation has been a constitutive part of the natural scientific disciplines. However, this undoubted fact is quite often forgotten. The revolutionary changes that occurred in the last decades often seemed to remove visualisation from the scientific mainstream and marginalize it as a teaching and popularization tool. Any real scientist, as is sometimes believed, should deal only with “brute facts and numbers”.

Despite this common prejudice, visualisation is not a mere illustration of texts, but an essential part of scientific work. Moreover, visualisation is often one of the crucial factors contributing to the whole process of scientific work. Visualisation (scientific and others) has an important influence on the imagination of the scientific community and its members and it may affect the course of research. An appropriate graphic illustration can be used as a highly effective tool in the propagation of some hypothesis, often no less effective than some brilliant written argumentation. Visualisation has a key role in the popularisation of science. In the history of sciences, there have been many models and important hypothesis, which became well established because it was easy to imagine them visually. Moreover, impressive symbolic representations (e.g. evolution tree, double helix, the line of hominids straightening up to Homo sapiens...) had a highly important role. It important to keep in mind the differentiation among various illustration types according to their purpose and the fact that the purpose of an illustration is to emphasize some characteristics of the represented object, rather than imitate the “objective reality”. And it is important to keep in mind that visualisation as such is a kind of manipulation with nature and it is prone to be used for improper argumentation or even propaganda. Visual literacy is thus a key skill for every researcher.

Papers presented at the gathering were dedicated to a wide range of topics. In the history of visualisation, we can repeatedly observe scientific illustrations verging into fine art, tools of representation, giving an impulse for interdisciplinary relations and even collecting articles.

At the beginning, Tomáš Kolich presented the visual concepts of C. H. Waddington, as a challenge and inspiration for evolution and development biology. It is a special kind of depiction: the pictures are not object-captures or graphic models, but visual metaphors depicting the beginning and course of embryonic development in different organisms, including possible variations. These conceptions are drawn in form of complex multi-dimensional “landscapes”, where the developing organism is passing through valleys on its path to development. There are crossroads where the decision on its further development is made.

Matěj Pudil presented the life and work of botanist and philosopher Agnes Arber. In her work she followed in the footsteps of J. W. Goethe’s theory of the variability of plant forms. In her day, Agnes Arber was a pioneer in attaining the knowledge that the scientific view emerges in the human mind and even that scientific knowledge is indivisible from the subjective motivations of the researchers.

Kristína Kolibačová showed how the visual representation of various biotopes could be beneficial for environmental protection and help the general public understand unusual biotopes. Understanding romantic and decadent aesthetics makes the public capable of accepting natural processes in the wild, which are not a pleasant sight. A recent case is the woods destroyed by the bark beetle in the Šumava National park.

Lucie Čermáková showed historical examples of how biological drawings proved to be helpful for the analysis of various scientific issues. With archive materials from the interwar times of the German University in Prague, she documented the importance of drawings for researchers then in their observations and exploring of nature.  

Karel Chobot presented the history of modern entomological illustration (which has been continually evolving since the Renaissance) and how it has been replaced with improving photography. Modern photographic technology captures very small species of insects in high quality (in some cases even without killing them – the individual is only hypothermic and after taking the photo it can be released). The role of drawings, which have been a dominant tool of all entomologists since the 16th century, is now increasingly being reduced to a popularisation tool.

Tereza Liepoldová and Roman Figura demonstrated how imaging (including microscopic) contributed to modern theories of embryonic development. The early scientific use of microscopes in the 17th century surprisingly inspired many researchers to believe that a new organism does not always develop in its mother’s womb (as the epigenetic theory assumed) but is already present in the gametes in some miniature form and as such can even be observed (this theory got the name preformism).

Ondřej Koukol spoke about the importance of drawings in modern mycologists’ work. Photography is still not able to depict the mycelium structure and reproductive organs in microscopic fungi. In spite of huge technological developments, the hand of an experienced illustrator is still irreplaceable here.

Waddington´s epigenetic landscape model. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Jiří Neustupa demonstrated how preparations of unicellular diatom algae became objects of collecting interest and even contemplation tools. At the fin-de-siècle, microscopes became a must-have item, sold together with expensive and beautiful unicellular algae preparations. The aesthetic quality of the preparations was much higher than needed for its popularising or educative function. These “mandalas” can be seen at the webpage of Klaus Kemp, who carries on this unusual art between biology and aesthetics.

At the end of the event, Vojtěch Abrahám used pollen grain stamps as an excellent visual aid. Generally, it is not very well known that there is a wide variability in pollen grains. This enables the research of historic vegetation in various regions with the use of pollen grain analyses.

At the colloquium, a working group was established (https://www.vizualita-veda-vnimani.cz/). It is working further on the Science-Visualisation-Perception topics and is preparing the next gathering. People interested in cooperation and contribution are welcome to join the group. For more information please see the website.

Roman Figura

Published: Nov 26, 2018 08:35 AM

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