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Truth & Beauty

Where does science end and art begin? A Harvard physicist and an MIT photographer offer different -- and surprising -- answers.

THERE'S NO ESCAPING the provocative power of the scientific imagery that bombards us regularly. The fingerprint, the skeleton as revealed by X-rays, the double helix, and fractal geometry are among the iconic images that demolish old ideas and crystallize new visions of the world.

And yet, though they continue to generate visual evidence of ongoing revolutions in science, scientists themselves are divided about how these images should be interpreted -- and, in particular, about whether they can or should be seen as art. What's more, just to complicate things, many of the procedures scientists now take for granted have analogues in the arts, which raises thorny questions about just who, in the end, is influencing whom?

On some of these issues, two Cambridge-based scientists -- Felice Frankel, a research scientist at MIT, and Eric Heller, a particle physicist at Harvard -- couldn't be farther apart. While Frankel and Heller know and admire each other's work, they take diametrically opposed positions on whether the imagery they produce is art and what its relationship is to science.

A published correction has been made to this story.  For the record

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Frankel, who has a background in landscape photography, aims to help scientists give their work visual expression, teaching them, she said in a recent interview, to "pay attention to composition, clarity, lighting quality, and framing." Though intended as a manual for scientists, her 2002 book "Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image," just out in paperback from MIT Press, is full of images that many an artist would feel proud to have generated.

The book starts with a rapid-fire survey of the role of imagery in the sciences, going from naturalistic cave painting through Copernicus's drawings of the cosmos to Robert Hooke's detailed mid-17th-century rendering of "The Eyes and Head of a Grey Drone-Fly," which demonstrated the newfound power of the microscope.

In her own work, which makes up the bulk of the book, Frankel commands an array of instruments that Hooke could not have imagined, ranging from the macro camera lens, for objects just large enough to be seen by the naked eye, to the scanning electron microscope, which uses electron beams to get glimpses of things too small for any optical microscope. "Envisioning Science" overflows with stunning examples of how Frankel fuses advanced technology and traditional photographic values. But for all the manifest appeal of her images, she strenuously refuses to think of them as art.

"You have to know," she explained, "that I make it a point to describe what I do not as art." It's not a question of false modesty on her part; Frankel feels her work would be undermined if removed from a strictly scientific context. "What's primary for me about my photographs," she said, "is that they communicate scientific information. If by chance they also happen to be beautiful, I'm very happy about that. But I feel I'm revealing the beauty that's already there." What she wants is for "people to be as excited and seduced by science as I am. Science gets as close to truth as one can get in this world."

But given all the skill involved in Frankel's work, it's not always easy to tell where craft leaves off and nature begins. Take, for example, her photos of microcantilevers, tiny electrical systems not much wider than a human hair: They are too rigidly aligned to be anything but mechanical, but they have more than a passing resemblance to organic forms such as spermatozoa. In short, they are sufficiently abstract to lend themselves to multiple readings, a quality they share with much good art.

Frankel believes that abstraction is a useful element of scientific photographs. "I think a lot of my images are successful because they are abstract," she explained. "That allows the viewer to participate." As she describes it, abstraction is a sort of come-on, "a seduction" that prepares the viewer for "another layer of meaning" -- a bedrock scientific layer that, in the case of microcantilevers, involves the physics of microelectrical systems. For her, abstract beauty is not an end in itself; it leads viewers to the nuts and bolts of scientific truths that underlie the image, and then it peels away -- leaving, she hopes, a readiness to recognize other such representations of nature.

Frankel's insistence on -- almost a fiercely protective attitude toward -- scientific truth, makes her impatient with artists who ransack science for imagery and metaphor without taking time to understand it. "I get angry," she says, "at artists who create one-liners, who take a sentence from a textbook and make an installation out of it."

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No one could accuse Eric Heller of failing to understand (as far as is possible, that is) the subatomic processes that inspire him both as a physicist and as an artist. Such processes can't be seen directly, but they can be modeled on a computer screen, which is one of the ways Heller studies them in his Harvard lab, for purposes of science.

For purposes of art, however, he uses the software program Photoshop to tease a mirage-like, at times nearly psychedelic quality out of such seemingly abstruse affairs as classical electron flow and quantum analogs. His colorized, ultra-high-resolution, large-format prints have been shown at such venues as MIT's Compton Gallery, Boston's Cyberarts Festival, and the National Academy of Science in Washington, where they were recently part of a show called "The Beauty Of Phenomena." (His online gallery is at www.ericjhellergallery.com.)

But looking at works like "Torus IV" and "Trichaotic," some obvious questions arise: How far does Heller go in these prints toward prettying nature up? Does he make quantum weirdness look a lot friendlier than it really is?

While he freely admits to aesthetic concerns -- like Frankel, he is an experienced landscape photographer -- Heller maintains he doesn't put physics behind him when he turns to art. He goes on the assumption that similar structures obtain in nature from the subatomic world on up -- a point he aims to reinforce with his art. "I try to bring out the familiarity and the mystery of the quantum world with allusions to organic and astronomical forms, and sometimes allusions to other works of art," he says.

When it comes to the art world, however, Heller considers himself an outsider. But he's a savvy outsider who diagnoses art-world behavior as he might a peculiarity of particle spin. "The universal thing in avant-garde modern art is newness," he says. "Many artists think that if they do the next shocking thing, they're going to be in the history books." His point of view is in many ways that of an aesthetic conservative, who respects beauty and traditional values that the art world in recent years has tended to treat as old-fashioned.

But then representationalism is in again on New York's Museum Row -- John Currin's much ballyhooed show at the Whitney this winter was only one example -- and it's no longer disreputable to look for beauty in visual art (though what is meant by "beauty" may be as debatable as ever). It may well be that Heller has the best of both worlds going for him: a traditional aesthetic -- the work is often just lovely to look at -- and the newness of a quantum world we hear so many rumors about.

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When it comes to figuring out where the next icon of the scientific revolution will come from, artist and curator Suzanne Anker, chair of the art history department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, may have as good an idea as any scientist. "Reprotech," a show she curated (currently at the New York Academy of Sciences) explores the implications of new reproductive technology and of the fact that, as the show's brochure puts it, "high-tech ways and means are expanding far beyond the old way of making babies." The exhibit contains some startling imagery, such as Gina Marie's photos of fossilized human fetuses and Steve Miller's sonogram images of intrauterine life.

In her recent book "The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age," coauthored with Dorothy Nelkin, Anker looks at disconcerting outcomes, real or imagined, of the biological revolution -- for example, a mouse engineered to grow a human ear on its back. This trick was pulled off several years ago by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Worcester campus, who conducted the experiment in order to show that human tissue could be engineered in a non-human medium, in hopes that someday the technique might be used to repair damaged tissue in people. (All this, it should be said, without causing long-term damage to the mouse.)

Anker discusses the mouse with a human ear as an example of what is known among biologists -- and their fellow travelers in the arts -- as transgenics, the cutting and pasting together of elements from two different beings to produce a third. She notes that in Greek mythology, that third was known as a chimera. She also points out that the technique of cutting and pasting was much in vogue among early 20th-century artists, such as Picasso and the Dadaists. "With the advent of the 20th century," Anker explained, "new ways of looking at the world arose in parallel in the arts and in science."

So it doesn't really matter that UMass researchers weren't thinking about Greek myth or art history when they grew an ear on that mouse. Now that humans can read and rewrite genetic code much as we do computer code, biology may well be the source for the next iconic image. If so, it may not be anything like the graceful double helix.

Harvey Blume is a writer living in Cambridge. 

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