Sunday, October 18, 2009

HoS Micropost: The Art of Scientific Imaging

Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/18 at 11:11 PM

An article in today’s (Monday, 19 October 2009’s) The Independent reports on the Wellcome Institute’s 2009 Image Awards: Worth a Closer Look: The Art of Science. The article raises questions about how these images might represent art, and how upon learning what is actually captured in the frame, the viewer’s appreciation for the art might change markedly. For example, the article asks how our appreciation for the following image changes when we learn what is represented:

Lung Cancer Cell
(Source: Anne Weston, ©Wellcome Institute—original image)

Does knowing that this is a lung cancer cell change our opinion of this image? Perhaps. More interesting might be the question: What does it mean to say this is a “lung cancer cell”?

While the article in The Independent concentrates on the artistic side of these images, questions about how images function in science have certainly attracted scholarly interest. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison revealed in “The Image of Objectivity,” how in pursuit of the ideal for observational objectivity instruments played and continue to play an ever increasing role.1 In their recent book, Objectivity, they argue convincingly that it is impossible to observe nature without infecting it with the viewer’s, i.e., the scientist’s or technician’s, prejudices. Consequently, images are never unproblematic reflections of nature as it really is, but are instead always over-interpreted.

What, then, do these images tell us about nature or about the scientists-artists-technicians-instruments that made them?

You can view the full set of images at the Wellcome Institute’s website: Wellcome Image Awards 2009. My favorite is:

Microparticle drug delivery
(Source: Annie Cavanagh, ©Wellcome Institute—original)

1Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, “The Image of Objectivity,” Representations 40(1992): 81–128 (available on-line here, subscription required). They have extended their work in their recent book, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2006). Of the many ways imaging is used in science and medicine, Magnetic Resonance Imaging has attracted the most attention. See, for example: Kelly Joyce, “Appealing Images: Magnetic Resonance Imaging and the Production of Authoritative Knowledge,” Social Studies of Science 35(2005): 437–62 (available here, subscription required) and Amit Prasad, “Making Images/Making Bodies: Visibilizing and Disciplining through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI),” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30(2005): 291–316 (available here, subscription required).

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