Fascination of Science exhibition shines a light on scientists through photography
The Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy acquired something unexpected last month: art. The portrait exhibition The fascination of science features some of today’s most prominent scientists and their hands decorated with artwork related to their work, which ranges from DNA-editing technology to extraterrestrials.
Created by Herlinde Koelbl, German artist, author and filmmaker, the exhibition was sponsored by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in DC with contributions from the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought and Women of Whiting. It will be available for viewing until March 18 and is located in the lobby of the building.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Koelbl said she hopes her exhibit will inspire students to pursue scientific studies. The portraits are intended to contribute to Koelbl’s goal with the project – to bring science to a wider audience – by showing the personalities behind the greatest scientific discoveries of recent times.
“Normally scientists are photographed as very serious people,” Koelbl said. “Most of them are quite old; they are successful people. I wanted to show a new face of science.
According to visiting assistant professor of history Victoria Harms, co-host of a panel discussion on the exhibit, the artwork traveled to Hopkins at the request of the German Embassy, which believed Hopkins would be a ideal place to exhibit the portraits because of the culture of the University around science and curiosity.
Each photo is paired with a quote from the scientist’s interview with Koelbl. In each interview, some of which can be viewed on Youtube, scientists discuss their backgrounds and summarize their research in terms understandable to a general audience. Koelbl asks them questions that aim to describe the scientist as a person and find out how each interviewee became the scientist they are today.
While the unique, relaxed poses in the portraits humanize the scientists, Koelbl argues that the interviews make them easier to relate to.
“Very often scientists, they live in a small closed world, like an ivory tower,” Koelbl said. “It’s a world apart, and I thought it would be so important to make science visible to society.”
A major theme in the interviews that struck both Koelbl and Harms was scientists’ descriptions of failure, a less famous part of scientific discovery and something that affects scientists and non-scientists alike.
During the interviews, Koelbl realized that scientists often face failure, but they accept it as a necessary part of the scientific process.
“[One of the scientists] said to me, ‘If you see things as failures, then it really is a failure. But if you see it as a new acquaintance, then you will go further,” Koelbl said.
Harms wrote in an email to The News-Letter that the University’s mission with the exhibit is to highlight the need and benefits of diversity in the scientific community. She emphasized this principle in an interview with The News-Letter.
“The questions about urban public health and so on that have really become so important during the pandemic — we haven’t answered some of those most pressing questions, actually,” Harms said. “A lot of that is because we don’t have enough diversity among our scientists.”
Koelbl also briefly touched on diversity in science, which she hopes her works will help promote. Her works show the motivation of today’s scientists to enter the field, which she believes has the potential to inspire students from all walks of life to pursue scientific studies.
“When, for example, Frances Arnold – she’s one of the Nobel laureates – or others when they were in science, it was really hard for them as women to work their way to the top “, she said. “So I wanted to show what inspired them to choose science.”
With his project, Koelbl wants to introduce a new way of thinking about science, a way that involves empathy and art. She believes that her exhibition demonstrates that seeing science through art highlights scientists rather than science, personalities rather than discoveries.
“You could see it on [the scientists’] faced how sharp they suddenly were,” Koelbl said. “So the scientists are now presented in a different way, in a more sympathetic and lively way. It’s a new idea, to have their philosophy or formula at hand; it’s really unusual.