The Image in Science: Unfrequently Asked Questions
Responses of the humanities to visualism in science
Symposium 6-7 Nov 2009 at Lund University, Sweden.
- What is the ontology of the computed image in science?
- How do objectivity, contingency and aesthetics intertwine in scientific visualizations of non-visual phenomena?
- How do the hermeneutics of the visual in science and culture relate?
- What kinds of visual literacy are involved in the interpretation of data, knowledge and meaning in scientific imagery?
- How does the image function as interface for interventions into the body and the world, and how is this functioning understood inside and outside science?
- According to which criteria is an image "scientific" anyway?
Computer-aided technologies for visualization have gained momentum as a crucial tool for the organization and communication of knowledge in the natural and medical sciences. Remote sensing of sonic and electromagnetic radiation (EMR), outside the spectrum of visible light, has radically increased the amounts of accessible data. In the 1870's, the British Challenger expedition completed around 350 deep sea soundings across the globe in three and a half year; a century later the first Seasat satellite registered 25 million soundings in three months. Similarly, in the medical sciences, technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) derive enormous data quantities from the body's interior, without having to resort to the scalpel.
As a result, sifting information out of immense data masses has become critical. Computerized algorithms that "translate" data into visual expressions such as images, maps and graphs have brought forth a "visualism in science" (Ihde), a new compelling and intriguing visual culture of science, which extends into popular science, popular culture and art as well.
From the micro- to the macrocosmic, science today may seem to have expanded human vision to encompass every dimension of physical reality. However, although often framed by a rhetoric of transparence, the transformed pictorial world of science generates interesting epistemological and hermeneutic challenges in every part of the process from data to knowledge and meaning. Pictorial representation in itself is contingent here, in the sense that there is nothing visual "embedded" in sonic waves and non-visual EMR – the measured data could as well be (and sometimes are) represented in textual, numerical or auditory forms. Furthermore, as colors are linked to variable parameters and threshold values (false colors, pseudo-colors), any data set could be given an indefinite number of visual expressions, each displaying a selected amount of information; thus the look of any given picture reflects decisions grounded in epistemological as well as communicative and aesthetical concerns. And as those pictures traverse disciplinary boundaries and spread into political, commercial and artistic contexts, they get enveloped in yet other interpretative practices which add to their layers of signification. In parallel, the conceptualization in the biosciences of organic life itself as moldable and mimetic (genetic engineering, cloning) has given rise to notions such as “biopictures” (Mitchell) and “biofacts” (Karafyllis) which demonstrate the instability of the reality/representation dichotomy.
The humanities today are accustomed to the notion of the “pictorial turn” (Mitchell) or “ikonische Wendung” (Boehm) of a late modern society, in which knowledge and experience are mediated predominantly through images. Yet, the contemporary role of the image in science - where the pictorial turn has been perhaps the most revolutionary – and the intersections between the visual arts and the sciences have only recently begun to be addressed by the humanities (Stafford, Elkins, Reichle, et al.). The symposium “The Image in Science: Unfrequently Asked Questions” aims to continue and deepen those discussions by bringing together scholars from a wide range of disciplines, from the humanities and the natural sciences, in a dialogue on the meaning of visualism in science.