I was recently reminded of this wonderful visualization of the processes inside the cell. As a physicist, I found this quite powerful in imagining this mysterious (and usually, to me, boring) microscopic world. It was created by a Harvard professor in conjunction with a scientific animation company. Here’s the video:
In my art and science visualization seminar we had quite an energetic discussion about this video, however. There seemed to be a lot of skepticism in the room about this visualization. “It’s not art,” claimed the artists in the room, and the scientists (who were not biologists) were suspicious of its scientific content. I’m here thinking this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and they’re tearing it apart. What gives? Are we distrustful of something that looks slick and expensive, as opposed to something homegrown? I haven’t seen such resistance to people’s aesthetic garage experiments. Perhaps because the garage experiments are simply celebrating aesthetics, not trying to convey scientific content.
One aspect of this video, of course, is its emotional content, which can serve to motivate people to learn biology. It uses different camera angles, an movement, and music, to make the viewer feel that they are zooming around these dynamic views of the inside of the cell. In terms of how people learn information cognitively, this is also useful. Multiple representations of a phenomenon are very useful in helping people make sense of information. Most science content is presented quite abstractly. As our guest speaker Martin Kemp said, this isn’t the science lesson, it’s the teaser.
Certainly, this video doesn’t stand on its own — it needs verbal support. Presumably an instructor would use it before or after instruction where the content is more explicitly explained.
There is an emotional narrative here, said the seminar participants. How does that relate to the intellectual narrative. Does this compromise the science? One claimed that there is incredible intentionality depicted here. The processes we see aren’t random, it’s very cooperative, like a small city. These little things are working very hard to accomplish what they do. They’re not self-conscious, but still are active agents.
This is dangerous, several people argued. We don’t know if these objects have intentionality. It turns out that the Discovery Institute co-opted part of this video to illustrate that God exists in the cell.
But, I argued against this. The “intentionality” that people saw in this video, I think, was their own anthropomorphizing. There was no intentionality inherent in the video — only motion. Any intentionality is just a metaphor, just like the “selfish gene” is just a metaphor. It can help us to imagine these ideas by ascribing intentionality, perhaps, but we need to be very aware that it is just a metaphor.
So, I think that this video is great — it helps us imagine something we can’t usually see and relate to scientific content in a new way. Phooey on the naysayers. Does anyone agree with me?