Butterfly Wing Scale / Communicating with Scientists for Outliers

Butterfly Wing Scale

Communicating for Outliers

Butterfly Wing Scale / Communicating with Scientists for Outliers
57 x 16 x 7 inches
Strathmore 400 drawing paper, polymer clay, modeling paste, glue, acrylic paint, ink markers
(Photos: Rick Lightbody)

I’ve been doing art inspired by science since the 1970s. During that time scientists and engineers have changed how we live in many ways and the pace seems to be getting faster all the time.

After devising a theory involving volcanic activity on the moon (which is explained in my sculpture “White Blood Cells / Letter to Science Magazine”) I decided I wanted to not just watch, but actually do science. I started doing research on the Ice Age markings in French and Spanish caves a couple of years ago and soon realized that this was a place that I could actually contribute to scientific field. I took a 400 level course in college called “Historical Anthropological Thought” in college and have been reading articles and books on the subject ever since. Additionally, the Ice Age markings were made by people who were drawing and painting on walls, i.e., people I can professionally relate to! I eventually wrote a paper suggesting meanings for some markings in two caves in Northern Spain, visited one of the caves, and made email contact with an anthropologist specializing in the Paleolithic signs.

The piece is the story of a “caterpillar” trying to become a “butterfly” of a scientist. As the text points out, affecting the views of anthropologists is not going to be quite as easy as I had hoped, but I’m making progress.

Of the various reference images I used for the butterfly wing scale, a photo by Cheryl Power ended up being the most helpful.

Here’s the text on the piece.


Communicating with Scientists for Outliers

People who want to make contributions to science who don’t have scientific credentials are facing some very high walls. Scientists have various names for people who try to become involved in their branch of science who are not one of their “peers”. “Outlier” is one. I’ve seen the word applied to a person who is perhaps the most published author in a particular branch of anthropology. He doesn’t have a degree in the field, he’s an outlier, that’s all there is to it. “Pseudoscientists” is another term thrown at non-peers.

Despite what seems to be a general distrust of outsiders, there do happen to be a few scientists willing to communicate with outlying artists. In some cases, scientists have even collaborated with artists on projects, such as the members of the nanotech lab that worked with Kimsooja to build “A Needle Woman”, a large outdoor sculpture that was part of Cornell Council for the Arts’ 2014 Biennial.

Outliers should not be afraid to contact the big names in a particular field, the only anthropologist who has answered my emails so far is the person I consider to be the leading person in her specialty. It took a while to get past her unhappiness with people who offer her suggestions who haven’t done the eight years of schooling in her field. Me being enthusiastic, willing to give praise, and following her instructions to supplement my reading of journal articles with basic anthropological teachings seem to have helped resolve this issue.

I am very grateful for this anthropologist’s help, she even offered to “cover in red” a paper that I wrote–and followed through on her promise. Once I made my way through the maze of red lines and comments on the paper, I had learned a great deal—and had a valuable list of authors and concepts to research. Because she needs to guard her reputation and can’t be seen as endorsing my work, I can’t mention her name.

I’ve learned a few things about trying to get published in scientific journals. In order to get anywhere near the anthropological journal gate, you need to be able to cite every author who has contributed to every concept you write about, along with the date that the author first published the concept. There tend to be clusters of these which are called “historical lineages”. There can be a mind-boggling amount of work involved in being able to know the work of all of the authors and the concepts they proposed involved with what you discuss. Just managing the tiny details involved in the bibliographies (for which there is no standard formatting style) that result from citing all these lineages can be a nightmare.

In current scientific journal style, an author is basically not allowed to use the word “I”. If the author absolutely cannot figure out how to leave themselves out of a sentence, he or she must refer to themselves as “the author” or some such phrase. Apparently this is part of an effort to get rid of “observer bias” in science. (While I’m in agreement that observer bias is a serious issue that needs to be reckoned with, I happen to be suspicious of the practice of banning the word “I” as a solution.) Other rules of science writing include no contractions, no exclamation points, and no Wikipedia references.

Scientists tend to not value “pretty” writing or “slick” design. Being rational and logical however are critical, one of the scientists who spoke at the opening of Kimsooja’s show kept repeating how amazed he was that some people actually use emotions in their work.

As for affecting science, fortunately, along with the journal articles, books by authors who have made contributions are included in scientific bibliographies. So I plan to publish a book. Hopefully I can find a grad student or PhD to flag the lineage items for me. I ran this concept by “my mentor” and she told me that it doesn’t matter whether it’s academic or popular writing, as long as I get into print with a date next to my name the arguments can begin. Oh boy.