Touching the Surface

At the start of this year, I was introduced to the work of the artist Wendy Smith, who has recently completed an exhibition at Michael Richardson Contemporary Art in London. Wendy has a substantial history of exhibiting and recognition in the art world, and has combined this with a distinguished professional background, gaining a DPhil from the University of York and going on to hold several senior academic appointments.

Dr Smith’s work is built upon hand-drawn lines from which emerge beautiful patterns, cloud-like geometries, and optical illusions. Up close, the results are complex and full of detail, but at a distance the effect can be quite minimalist. Some pieces remind me of crystalline lattices, or the diffraction patterns produced by a technique called X-ray crystallography (both of which help scientists determine the shape of molecules and biological structures, as well as the eruption of particles as they collide in particle accelerators like CERN. It is amazing how often the structures and patterns we see in science are repeated and reflected in works of art.


An X-ray crystalography diffraction pattern


The paths of sub-atomic particles after a high energy collision

Three principals seem to inform Dr Smith’s work. Firstly, the simplicity of materials used: pen or pencil on board or paper, and the interaction of these materials during the drawing process. Secondly, the expression of motion and energy that arises from the creation and interaction of lines on paper. Thirdly, the constraints of creating art within two-dimensional boundaries, examining how these boundaries can be expanded through suggestion and optical illusion.


In The Beam (2009) – an example of Wendy Smith’s work

What is remarkable about Dr Smith’s work is the spontaneity by which it is produced. Each piece begins with “no preconception, from the outset each drawing starts its journey as a voyage of discovery, the image emerging from the process as if coaxed from the surface”. This suggests an intuitive, exploratory method of creation, as opposed to a planned, structured approach to creating art.

Aside from the beauty of Dr Smith’s work, her art and methods made me consider how in art and science, points, grids, and lines can convey far more than their simplicity suggests. Physicists, in particular, have used very simple drawings to illustrate complicated concepts. An example of this is the famous Feynman diagrams, which describe the behaviour of subatomic particles. The magnificent achievement of their creator, Professor Richard Feynman, is the way that these simple drawings of straight and wavy lines are able to represent the complicated mathematics that describes how particles interact.


An X-ray crystalography diffraction pattern

Another example in physics is the concept of ‘Flatland’: a universe whose inhabitants exist on two-dimensional lines, and which helps to explain the possibility of hidden spatial dimensions in the universe. The concept of dimensions and boundaries in art also made me think about an exotic theory proposed by string theorists, known as the ‘Holographic Principal’. According to this theory, all the things that make up our three-dimensional universe could be encoded by two-dimensional information at a boundary of our universe. Limiting the dimensions upon which something is created or reducing the boundaries in which it is presented might help to increase our understanding of the science, or enhance our perception of the art. Perhaps in nature as in art, higher-order information can be projected from a less complex source.

If you’re a fan of this type of work, you can also visit Saturation Point, an online editorial of reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK.


The Subtle Art of the Bomb

Two weeks ago the UK parliament voted to commence airstrikes over Syria.

Within hours of the vote media outlets were publishing pro- or anti-bombing articles, and ‘experts’ were debating the repercussions of this military action, both on the ordinary people of Syria and on domestic security.

During this period of media hyperactivity and gross political self-congratulation (the latter acknowledged and scorned by both Frankie Boyle and David Mitchell) something more sinister briefly appeared in print media. Media outlets such as the Daily Mail published pieces describing the Brimstone missile, one of several weapons to be deployed by the RAF in the UK bombing campaign. Superficially commenting on the relative cost of these weapons, these media outlets used graphics and illustrations to describe in detail the appearance, capability, and range of the missiles.

Over the last 15 years of Western military engagement, these illustrations have appeared repeatedly in the press; sometimes flashy, high-tech depictions of aircraft carriers or fighter jets; sometimes elaborating on the destructive capability of missile systems and bombs. On this occasion I asked myself: who needs these illustrations? How does a cartoon-like illustration of a Brimstone missile contribute to a report on our impending military action? And what type of psychopath needs to know the technical specifications of such weapons to sway their opinion on the choices of the UK government? Surely, a pretty picture describing the guidance system of an air-to-ground missile contributes little to the debate over the practical and moral outcomes of the strikes?

And yet, there has always been a weird interest in tools of destruction. You only have to look at the racks of magazines focused on guns and ammo to realise that there is a healthy interest in the design and use of weaponry. Who prepared these graphics and illustrations? Do art departments in major newspapers that have the ability and creative will to knock up these pictures of ‘bunker-buster’ missiles and SAS assaults on IS strongholds? This raises the worrying possibility that the media is being supplied with these technical specs by the government or weapons manufacturers themselves. How else could we know the dimensions, range and destructive power of the latest high-tech bomb? These illustrations are at best propaganda, at worst, a way of numbing us to the reality of these weapons by transforming them into cartoons.

It is, perhaps, a subtle way of gaining subconscious support (or at least acquiescence) from a gaming generation who respond to these kind of images. You can begin to make a connection between the increase in popularity and realism of these games, and how people might become receptive to information from the media, presented in a similar manner.

Perhaps, at least, we can be confident that in the case of weapons, form follows function. These illustrations assure us that our tax money has not been wasted on unnecessary frills or plush coverings. Paul Smith does not tailor our missiles with flashy silk lining. Vivienne Westwood does not encrust tracer bullets with precious stones.

Whilst I still cannot understand the purpose of these illustrations, nor the motivation of the agencies that create them, I’ll be sure to scrutinize them more carefully in the future and continue to question their existence.

Enough already! Balancing complexity in nature and design.

I’ve been thinking about how complexity influences form, function, and aesthetic appeal.

Part of this has involved considering how nature balances complexity with efficiency, and how evolution and selection are constantly refining living systems in response to their environment. Fortunately for us, this results in some pretty interesting and attractive results that we can consider as part of our creative efforts.

We can all think of examples of art and design that are complex in their form or appearance; for example the works of Pointillist artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and those that are superficially simple, like the flowing sculptures of Henry Moore. In both these examples the superficial complexity of the work is an intrinsic part of their power. Deep thought, meaning and purpose can underlie apparently ‘simple’ design, just as technically or visually complicated work may be trying to transmit a simple message.

We might not even notice the complexity of the work; fine brush strokes viewed up close, disappear upon viewing the whole picture, forming a highlight here or the suggestion of a smile there. Conversely, simple lines and curves dashed off in a quick sketch can convey the essence of the subject matter, which we can recognize instantly without the need for further detail.

Nature seems to follow reductionist principals, with every adaption evolving to be as simple as possible whilst maintaining efficiency of purpose. The number and spacing of petals on a flower are optimized to maximize their packing and improve their ability to attract pollinators. The seedpods of many trees evolve fins, blades, and wing-shapes that allow the seeds to drift on the breeze as far from the tree as possible to reseed new territories. Reverse-engineering these natural adaptations to fulfil the needs of humans is a very difficult process, but one that often yields success. However, many simple, natural entities operate within highly complex larger systems. A single ant may be a simple functional unit, but an ant colony is a complex, dynamic thing.

It should be pointed out that in nature or in art, quantity does not equal complexity. In biology, the C-value paradox proposed in the 1940s asked why the complexity of an organism did not relate to the size of its genome – some salamanders have 40 times more DNA in their genome that do humans, yet we are undoubtedly the more complex animal. This was resolved by discovering that much of the salamander DNA was redundant – serving no obvious biological role, and unimportant for the animal to be able to develop and live. In humans, a recent study in Science revealed that only 10% of our 20,000 or so human genes are required for cells to survive and divide in the laboratory.


Some salamanders have 40 times more DNA than humans. Does this make them more complex?

I wonder if there might be such a thing as a ‘complexity threshold’ in art and in nature; a point at which adding more stuff just produces diminishing returns, or even detracts from the whole? Too heavy a brush stroke here or too much colour there… Perhaps, in the case of creativity and design, there are points at either end of the complexity spectrum that are just right to produce an emotional response?

So maybe it’s worth keeping mind when we are creating, when to be complex, and when to be simple. Understanding how and why we do this will allow us to convey our message more deliberately and effectively, and hopefully, more successfully.



Creativity in Science vs. Design

Scientists are often told that in order to conduct effective research and succeed in their field, they must be creative.

What does this really mean for hard science, which seems – on the surface – very different from creative activities such as painting, sculpture or music, and from creative professions like digital design, advertising or marketing?

It’s true to say that both scientific and creative professions involve abstract thought and complex ideas. In the life sciences, we try to understand and reverse-engineer complex biological machines and systems that are too small to be seen by eye and impossible to dissemble by hand – for example the cells that make up our bodies. We have to develop mental impressions of these microscopic objects and systems, and use roundabout methods to figure out how they work – all without ever seeing them with our eyes or feeling them in our hands. Other sciences such as physics become even more abstract in their practice, and some concepts like quantum theory don’t even follow our intuitive day-to-day experience of how the world behaves.

It seems that encouraging scientists to be ‘creative’ is one of those phrases that have crept in as jargon; probably alongside the corporate business-like practices that universities now follow. Personally, I cringe a little each time I hear it in a scientific context as it is usually coming from the mouth of a funding body, a career development professional or worse, a politician, all of whom are far removed from the practice of science.

Surely, however, being creative should be encouraged whatever the context? There are certainly many artistic people working in science, so I believe the trouble arises from the definition of the term ‘creative’. We all understand the concept of creativity when applied to art, design, etc., but what does it mean for scientists, who theorize, count and measure?

I would argue that in the context of ‘creative professions’ creativity can be defined as the intuitive or considered mixing of unrelated objects, ideas, or building blocks of whatever form, resulting in the synthesis of something new, which – and this is for me the crucial point – produces an emotional or behavioral reaction in those who experience it. Now that might sound like an unnecessarily wordy, academic way of putting it. Forgive me; I’m a product of my environment…

I think the idea of creativity in science is much simpler, encouraging us to use the tools available to us in smart, thoughtful and efficient ways to answer important questions about how the world works. The mental processes required to achieve this might resemble those of other creative activities, but to me, the difference is significant. Apart from the ‘Eureka!’ moments we might experience from time-to-time, science doesn’t elicit the same emotions as viewing a Caravaggio painting, the wild joy of jumping around playing loud rock music, or… I don’t know… the urge to run out and buy a new product from Apple.

Perhaps then, if we can be more honest with our language, realise what we share intellectually with different professions and where we differ, we can share practices that benefit us all. Check out this article by Ben McNeil in ArsTechnica for a great example of the confusion over creativity in science.


Welcome everyone, to my new site and blog; Scientific Design.

Here I will be showcasing a range of my design work, photography, and creative output, as well as blending my current activities as a life scientist.

I’ll be adding more content as the site continues to grow, so please do leave feedback! I’d also welcome links to all the creative and technical design out there…

– Oli Thompson