Argonne National Laboratory

Finding a palate for the science palette

By Stephanie YinSeptember 11, 2012

Like art, science expands our notion of the universe. It broadens our rainbow, lending us infrared or X-ray vision. It takes us from microcosms to the cosmos. It lets us envision how our planet was born, and how it might eventually die.

No wonder, then, that science can beget compelling art — which is what Argonne National Laboratory’s annual “Art of Science” contest is all about. The contest calls for laboratory employees and users of Argonne’s facilities to submit images and photographs that showcase their research.

“People sometimes forget that science requires great imagination,” said researcher Paul Podsiadlo, who submitted several images to the contest when he was a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne. “These pieces of art are manifestations of the creative thought processes that go into our research.”

Art of Science images provide vivid and enchanting representations of the world-class research that scientists and engineers engage in daily on Argonne’s grounds. Submissions range from protein structures to computer simulations to images from the microscope.

“Every once in a while in the course of research, an image pops up on a microscope or screen that makes you stop what you’re doing and just appreciate the aesthetic value,” said Seth Darling, an Argonne nanoscientist and frequent Art of Science contributor. “With programs like Art of Science, you get a chance to share those images with an audience far broader than the scientist sitting next to you.”

Images from the contest grace the pages of Argonne publications, adorn laboratory buildings and share cutting-edge research with audiences outside the laboratory through traveling exhibits. They have appeared in public-access libraries, including the University of Chicago’s John Crerar Library and the Downers Grove Public Library.

Most recently, 27 Art of Science posters were installed in an exhibit at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The O’Hare exhibit, which is now up and will run through early 2013, is located in the hallways connecting Terminals 2 and 3 adjacent to the Rotunda.

“We are pleased to bring this intersection of art and science to travelers passing through O’Hare Airport,” said Matt Howard, the director of Argonne’s Communications, Education and Public Affairs division. “The exhibit allows us to showcase the game-changing research and innovation that occurs at Argonne to people from all around the world.”

In addition to sharing Argonne’s dedication to scientific discovery, Art of Science reminds us of the power of coupling art and science. By commingling the two, scientists and artists can expand the scope of their work in impressive ways.

“The art-science interface has evolved into a real movement over the past decade or so, but there seem to be many opportunities for further exploration,” said Darling. “Art is a powerful way to engage people in science, and science can often inspire artists’ creativity — but even those are one-way paths. Collaboration between artists and scientists may open even more exciting doors.”

Elena Shevchenko, another nanoscientist and frequent contributor to the contest, says that she no longer makes a distinction between science and art. “There is so much art in science, and vice versa,” she said. “Scientists have to convey their data in clear and engrossing ways. If you manage to do that, you end up with something that looks like a piece of art.”

Art of Science is the perfect outlet for the scientist who, in the pursuit of knowledge, has stumbled across something sublime. The results can resonate with people who don’t necessarily envision electrons, blood platelets or nanomaterials on a daily basis.

As Shevchenko put it, “If people think your science is beautiful, they’re more likely to ask, ‘What is that?’  That’s the first step to getting more people curious about science.”

This fall, Argonne will continue its Art of Science tradition with the laboratory’s fourth annual contest. To see images from previous contests, visit Argonne’s Flickr site.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.