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Go On … Be Creative This Christmas!


Being spontaneous and expressive may not come naturally to many scientists. We boffins can be a sober bunch, and it probably wouldn't take a psychologist much to blame it all on our childhood. After all, many of us probably missed out on a liberal artsy-type education. What's more, the conservative nature of our work may encourage those cautious tendencies to rub off on us a bit too much. So, if you recognise, somewhere deep within, the desire to break free and express yourself, the run up to Christmas is a good time to have a go. Everyone is getting in the mood for a well-deserved holiday and a bit of extravagance. If only we could find a way to get all that pent-up creative energy out. ...

Now, I'd like to think that I'm not too repressed, in spite of my profession, as I do enjoy any opportunity to be creative in my work. Using PowerPoint to make posters and presentations is, sadly, a major source of joy in my life, even though it's too flat and boxlike to satisfy me. What I needed was something original--something OFF-THE-WALL.

Recently, inspiration struck when I saw a partygoer wearing a little black dress covered with fine print detail. On closer (albeit discrete) inspection, I immediately blurted out: "You're wearing a multiple amino-acid sequence alignment!" "Yes I am," came the reply. "It's a concept dress, and you're the first person to recognise it." I was a bit chuffed when she said that. So I started thinking that there must be something like that I could do myself.

I had some T-shirt transfers for my printer stuffed in a drawer at home, all but forgotten until that dress inspired me to see what I could do with some of my own data. OK, so a T-shirt isn't quite a concept dress, but it's a start. A while back, I'd captured some digital images--nothing exceptional, just some monochrome images of cells. With all the enthusiasm of a 3-year-old with some coloured squares of paper and a gluestick, I started to play around with these images on my computer screen. After they were copied and pasted, flipped and rotated, false-coloured and shaded, the final product looked not a little esoteric, I have to say. My boring old cells had been transformed into a spiral fantasy in various shades of purple. I printed the transfer and spent a tense few minutes lining up my masterpiece onto a spare T-shirt. The next day, I wore my creation out, although I haven't yet taken it on a trip to work. I might already be falling victim to the feeling of nervousness that invades every artist when it comes to displaying one's creations.

Actually, wearing it at work might just be a bit too pretentious. As if my results were worthy to be classed as art! Hey, wait a minute, Phil. Herein lies your biggest blunder and the misunderstanding of many of your fellow scientists! Anything can be turned into art these days, and science is no exception. In fact, science has a novelty and richness that is very appealing to many artists looking for new sources of inspiration. You can even get money to do this stuff (see box).

Art Meets Science

Sources of funding for your big idea:

Wellcome Trust: performing/writing/visual

Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science & Technology: electronic and digital technologies

Arts Catalyst: science-art interface research

Leonardo/the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology: writing

National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts: science-art interface research

I then started to broaden my horizons in what became a mad rush to satisfy all those long years of nonartsiness. My next miniproject, or should I say microproject, took me about 3 minutes. I'd already made a few digital movies of my cells growing ? all I needed to do was add some false colour, copy the selected bit 100 times over and resave the movie. The excitement mounted for the premiere of Phil's first-ever motion picture. I pressed the play button and was surprised at how humorous it looked. OK, so I might never send it to Mr. Steven Spielberg, but it might get some airtime at a conference near you soon. It looks like the sort of thing ultrasuccessful group leaders throw onto the end of their presentations just for laughs. Apparently, it shows that they can afford to treat their science lightly, such is the gravity and international excellence of the real science they've just presented. Oh, how I aspire to such nonchalance!

By now I am hooked, and constantly searching for new ideas that will let me push the boundaries of my scientific life back even further.

Please stand back, I must create!

Next comes the birthday card for a friend. Yes, you've guessed it, a variation on my by-now famous T-shirt design (well, I've shown my folks, anyhow). What else can I do? A third dimension, that's what I need. I must sculpt. I am thinking plastic centrifuge tubes. I am thinking gold spray paint. I am thinking Christmas decorations. Needless to say, work is in progress at present. But let's just say that guests had better take a close look at my tree this Christmas!

With all this visual arts flair blooming, it is disappointing to be confronted by the limits of my artistic ability. It was with a feeling of utter deflation that I remembered how completely "amusical" I am. Can't even play the triangle. But just imagine what opportunities there must be for sampling minute scientific sounds, amplifying and mixing them. Well, I just can't, so I have to leave these ideas in the hands of you musicians.

At the end of the day, your personal artistic bent matters not. The important bit is the enjoyment you get out of it. You could do a nice collage for the lounge or submit an incomprehensible poem to a poetry competition. I don't know if I will take my new passion any further though--my days are already full to the brim. But I've found a release in art that'll make me look differently at science. Maybe I'll just focus on being a successful "passive artist," visiting science art exhibitions, plays, and the like.

Hold on, I've just had another idea. ?

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