Visualizing the Art Inside the Science

scientist photography award
Courtesy of Sung Hoon Kang, Boaz Pokroy, and Joanna Aizenberg

Green is the new black, and sustainability has been declared our savior. Yet scientists still face an uphill battle for the fickle attentions of the public. Sung H. Kang, Boaz Pokroy, and Joanna Aizenberg of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences turned to visual art. They collectively won the photography division of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, which awards images that present complicated research in a layman-friendly way—images that bring the science to the people.

Bringing science to the people is Professor Aizenberg’s passion, and stunning pictures her weapon of choice. The winning photo’s title, “Save Our Earth. Let’s Go Green,” is a nod to her area of focus: collaborative research in approaches to sustainability. The image features tiny plastic fibers designed to reach out and capture foreign objects.

Yet there’s also an artistic significance to the photo’s title. For the researchers, the image brought to mind humanity’s attempts to work together and combat the looming environmental crisis. Against a background of darkness, “the multiple fingers metaphorically present our efforts—mine, yours, and everybody else’s—holding the planet together,” Aizenberg said.

The research team hopes that imagery like theirs will help to recapture the public imagination and reach out to those generally unimpressed by the realities of science research. “Scientific images help us to appreciate the beauty of science without any equation,” said Kang, a graduate student in Aizenberg’s lab. Felice Frankel, Senior Research Fellow and one-time judge of the Visualization Challenge, couldn’t agree more: “This isn’t about speaking down to non-scientists; it’s about engaging them to be as excited about our world,” she said.

The challenge science faces is one all too familiar to high school chess captains and economists at dinner parties: the challenge of convincing people that what you do really is interesting. With images like this, Professor Aizenberg is getting people to ask questions. “If the first thing they see is that they like the image and only after they decide to read what science is behind it, I think I have achieved what I wanted,” she said.

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