I recently attended an interesting workshop on how the humanities, arts and social sciences research sector (or HASS research sector for the sake of brevity) and the natural sciences sector might learn from each other in how to do better research.
During the workshop I was asking myself yet again why astronomy gets so much research money and so many big gadgets. After all, astronomy research results typically have little direct impact on us and the problems confronting the world. Typically we will hear that they are just good at lobbying, at mounting a case. But taxonomists argue their case for funding well too, but with comparatively little impact. Why? I think at least one explanation is that astronomers and cosmologists use imagery very well, both the searingly beautiful visible light images from the Hubble space telescope and the animations and simulations they provide to funders, and to the popular media. These images make the research accessible to non experts and allow us all to apparently share the joy of exploration that astronomers have. Have we tried this for our work describing the fauna of this world, our taxonomy and phylogeny work? Botanical and faunal illustration go part of the way, but lack the thrill of the unknown that astronomers convey. So, where are our taxonomic visualisers?
Also at the workshop I heard about and saw some of the incredible image making of Dr Phred Petersen. Phred is coordinator of scientific photography in the School of Media and Communications at RMIT UNiversity, and is someone who personifies the interface between the arts and the sciences. His bio in the workshop program states: “Phred’s research interests are primarily related to the use of high speed photography to visualise and understand transient events, shock wave phenomena and gas flows.” Sounds curiously mundane, but the images are beautiful. The point Phred made was if you have the choice between two images that equally convey the science content, then use the more aesthetically pleasing one, because humans will respond to that beauty as well as to the science. And if you don’t have a beautiful image, then create one. Incidentally, Phred won the 2008 Eureka prize for Science Photography. In our own backyard Sue Lindsay’s talent with Scanning Electron Microscope images achieves similar outcomes.