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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Seeing is believing?
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Seeing is believing?
RTD info special "Talking Science"
     
   

'Besides finding the colours beautiful or the shapes intriguing, it is perhaps necessary to be aware of the scientific reality, too. It is a question of evaluating what all these images can contain by way of information or open up in terms of further inquiry. When they are exhibited to the public, the appreciation varies depending on whether or not they are specialists in the field. Everyone gets something different from them,' explains Michel Depardieu, of the Scientific Information and Communication Department at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in Paris.

The images he is speaking of are part of the travelling exhibition entitled When science meets art which, over the past three years, has given the general public the chance to see the scientific images produced by Inserm researchers. The exhibition is constantly on the road, travelling from continent to continent, from Beijing to Quebec, by way of Houston and New Delhi. 'I wanted these scientific photographs, which really stimulate the imagination, to enable those who know nothing about research to immerse themselves in this environment.' The images – placed in context by means of photos of the researchers in their laboratories, explanatory captions, introductory text, etc. – were selected both for their aesthetic value and their ability to appeal to the general public.

The public has proved receptive just about everywhere. Scientific imagery is beginning to be a part of our culture. Press and television have accustomed us to the abstract beauty of the earth captured by satellite and the streaks of light analysed by astrophysicists. The rods of the Aids virus and the searching heads of sperm cells have attained a symbolic value. But what is the meaning and nature of these images?

Their colours, their shapes and their perspective are all illusions of the real, just like our own vision which has always been deceptive. Due to a slight deflection of light by the atmosphere, the stars are not where we suppose them to be. The sky is not blue and the way we perceive colours (to a degree of course) is individual. The brain encodes the luminous energy transmitted by the retina and recreates this world in three dimensions in accordance with the perspective of the Renaissance artists who placed man at the centre of the world. Roads narrow in the distance. The darker a chasm, the deeper it appears to be. When inverted, the same image can show the foot of a canyon or mountain peaks. 'We must therefore admit that the image we have the impression of seeing does not exist. It is a visual fresco, a creation, the product of a compromise between our neurons and our retina,' explains Patrice Lanoy.

Also, the technologies used by science are revealing more and more of what is invisible to the naked eye: microscopes, X-rays, magnetic resonance imagery, infra-red and the traces of elementary particles all provide us with indicators – indicators which fascinate. In informed circles at the beginning of the century, it was all the rage to have 'one's picture taken' by X-rays, for example. Complete silhouettes of transparent subjects were produced by William Morton in New York, among others.

These indicators also constitute increasingly fundamental tools of research, even if they do not correspond to reality. Images – beginning with the very modest diagram – have always accompanied science, strengthening an approach or a description, illuminating a message or concept and facilitating communication. 'Science affirms that its material images are a portrayal of the physically invisible of which they constitute a proof when they are also the portrayal of the mentally invisible, the regaining of a freedom lost since the advent of modern science, namely the relationship of the senses to things,' explains Monique Sicard (CNRS - France).

The shape of salt crystals will appear rounded to a varying degree depending on the technical setting on the machine which captures them. The same object 'seen' by an electron microscope set to scan or transmission mode will differ considerably. But scientists have long needed an image in order to work – and to convince. 'Science has always produced two kinds of image: reconstitutions of the real destined for a scientific process, and icons, designed to influence a relatively uninformed public of decision-makers and media,' writes Patrice Leroy, who condemns our so-called image society which is increasingly being invaded by icons.

     
 
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