The old saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and that certainly is true when it comes to science! At the intersection of art, science, medicine, and technology is science art. Images are used in science for many reasons – to show data, explain concepts, share information, and to excite and engage the public.
The use of the arts as a way to convey scientific and medical information is nothing new.
- There are many instances of the arts in antiquity, especially used to communicate medicine and knowledge of the human body. Below is an ancient piece of Greek pottery that shows a doctor in action, bandaging a soldier’s arm after removing an arrow. (image credit ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, knowledge of the human body and illustrations of its organization were developed. We all know about Leonardo da Vinci and his detailed studies of human anatomy from observation, but at this time anatomical art was common for use of describing medicine. For example, there are records of Islamic Medical Scholars (shown here) and Japanese and Chinese healers making detailed maps of the human body, its anatomy, and the way ailments affect the body. (image credit https://muslimheritage.com/1001-cures-image-gallery/)
- A more modern science artist is Beatrix Potter, who is probably best known for her series of illustrated children’s books, including the Tale of Peter Rabbit. But Potter was an avid naturalist, conservationist, and mycologist – she studied fungus in great detail, illustrating her observations. (public domain image)
- A contemporary of Potter’s is Sir Alexander Fleming, best known as the scientist who identified penicillin. Besides his scientific explorations, Fleming was an amateur watercolorist. One day, likely inspired by the vibrant colors of microorganisms, he began to paint using a petri dish as a canvas, and here are some of his works. (image credit Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum (Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust)
- Some of today’s bio-art uses biotechnology to create living works of art. In the lab, we often use GFP to mark cells and tissues so we can learn more about their biology. Artists have harnessed this technology to create art, which in addition to being quite striking visually, it opens up the discussion of bioethics in genetic engineering, in whether this is ethical or not in terms of the care and treatment of the living creatures, genetic privacy, and more. (image credit: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.0904061106)
- Scientists continue to create art using microorganisms. Each year, the American Society for Microbiology (or ASM) hosts the Agar Art Competition, in which sci-artists around the world create works of art using living biopaints. (image credit https://asm.org/Events/ASM-Agar-Art-Contest/Home)
- Science Art isn’t just limited to visual arts. There are examples of science art in music, poetry, and dance, as evidenced by the AAAS “Dance your PhD” contest. The only limits are your imagination. (image credit https://www.science.org/content/article/watch-winner-year-s-dance-your-phd-contest)
Scientific and medical illustrators are communicators that use visual tools to describe scientific information. They are highly trained in scientific fields and in graphic design, allowing them to work with researchers to create figures that highlight data and observations. There are several professional societies formed to support science communicators who use visual resources, including the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (or GNSI) and the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). Recently, the GNSI put out a call to science illustrators to share their portfolios on twitter, using the hashtag #SciArtPortfolioWeek. Here are some of our favorites (but be sure to click the hashtag to see all of the amazing work being shared!). As you look through the images, think about how they show scientific information, and how we can encourage students to think about their science visually!