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Imagery in Art and Science - from da Vinci to the Desktop


da Vinci catheterized? See below for details. Click to enlargeReaders interested in more of the science-art boundary should check out the review by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles in the May 2007 Scientific American. Titled The Interplay of Art and Science,the piece is an in-depth look at two books by Martin Kemp:

Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design and Seen/Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope

(Note: Kemp is a frequent contributor to the Science in Culture column in Nature. A leading expert on da Vinci, he is professor of art history at Oxford.)

According to Kevles, a common theme in both books is how art affects imagery in science and science affects imagery in art, which leads to some very interesting and provocative ideas about digital imagery.

Two parts of the review are of particular interest. In one, Kevles describes how Kemp relates D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s analysis of the shape and size of living organisms spelled out in his famous work On Growth and Form to the "visual mathematics of fractals, chaos theory and machine-made images."

Continuing with the idea of the connection between visual imagery, art, science, and life, Kevles closes with some of Kemp’s concerns about the imagery produced by science (e.g. in the form of medical imaging technology) and the reality behind it. The following is an excerpt: (See Kevles’ full review for much more)

He (Kemp) questions the validity, interpretation and ultimately the use of computerized, machine-made images extracted, for example, from PET and fMRI brain scans. Suddenly he fears the technology he has been describing. "The more technological the image looks, the more it exudes ... authority," he writes, but a computer is, nonetheless, a man-made tool that "seems to promise a non-human precision." And it would be a mistake to put the tool makers in the privileged position of deciding how their tools should be used. ...Kemp offers us a way of considering how artists and scientists have intuited visual truths in the past, reminds us that the past and the present are connected, and warns us against the potential tyranny of the newest digitized images that, though often beautiful and beguiling, are still man-made and not infallible.


Woman’s Torso by Leonardo. Click to enlargeKemp is describing images that can’t be seen directly (i.e. MRI images), and so his concern is well-taken. Reality is what we see, of course, and indirect views via imagery - hand made or computed - are often the only ones available. The "authority" of an image is a function of how the image was produced, but if we don’t stop to occasionally question the technology behind the image, we may be fooled into accepting a reality that isn’t true. (Oddly, there is a connection here to my earlier post on the Fake Farm Music Machine. )

And I wonder how Kemp would react to learning that Leonardo’s name provides an acronym for a medical-imaging device known as daVinci, which stands for VIsual Navigation of Catheter Insertion. I suppose if you are going to be catheterized, this is better than a "blind" insertion, but I can’t help but be reminded of da Vinci’s own anatomical drawings, which are pretty good for 15th-century work. (The image at the top of this post is a screen shot from the interface.)