Oh Jellyfish, Where Is Thy Sting?

Hat tip to Georgia Council for the Arts which posted a link to the Smithsonian article, Why Science Needs Art.  The article focuses largely on marine life, but the basic gist is that there is so much about science the general public doesn’t understand or have the equipment to experience that artistic execution is necessary to translate that into comprehensible terms.

One of the first examples given discusses how a student from the Maryland Institute College of Art working at the Smithsonian museum kept getting questions about how jellyfish sting.

She always got the same question from visitors, “how do jellyfish stings work?” She had the scientific answer for them but found it difficult to explain the microscopic stinging cells that fire like harpoons out of jelly tentacles without a clear visual.

That’s when a lightbulb went off in Payne’s mind. She could show visitors how jellyfish sting using art. Payne immediately got to work in the sculpture shop at her school, excited to bring the microscopic stinging cells into full view.

Payne built a 3D model of one of the stinging cells that line jelly tentacles—called a nematocyst—that visitors could touch and interact with. The model showed visitors a jelly’s stinging power and helped Payne explain how to take care of a jellyfish sting.

Later, a marine scientist discusses how she took up photography in order to capture animals in the natural habitat because they looked entirely different there than preserved in a museum.  And the merged scientific and artistic perspective have benefits toward greater application:

Her discoveries apply to fields beyond science, like technology. Right now, Osborn’s team is looking at how a spineless, free-swimming bristle worm called a Tomopteris moves to help the tech industry make better, lighter and more maneuverable robots.

But studying these and other midwater creatures takes a highly trained eye for discerning shapes. “I do illustrations, sketch and photograph the animal to understand its structure,” Osborn explained.

This ability to pay careful attention to patterns, shapes and spatial relationships helps scientists properly observe and discover—key pillars of the scientific process. It also helps them create clear visuals of the collected data. Graphs, figures and scientific illustrations are all more powerful when they have a touch of artistry.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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