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Introduction to Scientific Experimental

Methods for Artists:

How Science and Art Can Intersect
First printed in 2011 at HASTAC
(Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)
!T"# This is the $irst o$ a continuing series o$ articles about art, science and e%perimentation by me, &ic' (oble, the author
o$ and photographer $or the boo' Experimental Digital Photography)
Science and art o$ten in*ol*e a similar point o$ *ie+) "%perimenting is one o$ those areas)
"ach discipline can learn $rom the other)
,n -lato.s (ialogues, Socrates is as'ed# /How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not
know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you
should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? / And
Socrates agrees +ith the 0uestioner)
1hile -lato.s logic is impeccable, his argument is $la+ed) Scientists and artists do disco*er
things that they did not 'no+) !$ten using intuition and not logic, e%periments ha*e shed light
on the un'no+n and brought +hat +as $ormerly unclear +ithin the grasp o$ human
The intuitie mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful serant!
"e hae created a society that honors the serant and has forgotten the gift!
Albert "instein
2ust a $e+ years a$ter -lato +rote the (ialogues, the 3ree' "ratosthenes per$ormed one o$
the $irst e%periments in +hich he sho+ed the "arth +as a globe and calculated the
circum$erence +ithin 200 miles o$ today.s measurements) And starting +ith 3alileo, +ho many
belie*e pioneered the modern methods o$ e%perimenting, much o$ the modern +orld has been
constructed due to e%periments)
1hile e%perimenting is o$ten thought o$ as primarily a logical scienti$ic tool, it is $re0uently all
too human 44 e*en in the +orld o$ science) 5y de$inition e%perimentation e%plores areas that
ha*e not been e%plored) 1hile there are some guideposts, these can o$ten be de$ined only in
the broadest terms) ,n the end, accident $re0uently plays a ma6or role in scienti$ic
e%perimentation) And in the end it o$ten ta'es intuition and an open mind to understand the
nature o$ an une%pected result 44 not unli'e the intuiti*e mind o$ an artist)
&ic' (oble Introduction to Scientific Experimental #ethods for $rtists% How Science and $rt &an Intersect -age 1 o$ 7
It was 'uite the most incredi(le eent that has eer happened to me in my life! It
was almost as incredi(le as if you fired a )*+inch shell at a piece of tissue paper
and it came (ack and hit you! ,n consideration, I reali-ed that this scattering
(ackward must (e the result of a single collision, and when I made calculations I
saw that it was impossi(le to get anything of that order of magnitude unless you
took a system in which the greater part of the mass of the atom was concentrated
in a minute nucleus! It was then that I had the idea of an atom with a minute
massie center, carrying a charge!
"rnest &uther$ord (commenting on his e%periment that resulted in disco*ering the
basic structure o$ the atom)
As any scientist can e%plain, e%perimenting is an art) Some o$ the greatest $indings ha*e
come about because o$ a cle*er e%periment that re*ealed a signi$icant result such as
&uther$ord.s $amous e%periment mentioned abo*e) And although e*ery ne+ e%periment +ill
be di$$erent, there are lessons to be learned $rom past e%perimentation)
, belie*e contemporary art can learn $rom science and incorporate some scienti$ic methods
into its o+n 0uest $or e%ploration) 1hile art and science are 0uite di$$erent, e%perimentation
has been central to ma6or art mo*ements in the 20th century and today is a ma6or trend +ith
digital art and photography)
$ll the mem(ers of the .$(stract Expressionist/ group were experimental in their
approach! The a(sence of preconceied outcomes was a cele(rated feature of
$(stract Expressionism!
#ark 0othko 1)2345 wrote that
I think of my pictures as dramas!!! 6either the action nor the actors can (e
anticipated, or descri(ed in adance! They (egin as an unknown adenture in an
unknown space!!! Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply
the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur!
3alenson, (a*id 1) The 7ife &ycles of #odern $rtists!ational 5ureau o$
"conomic &esearch, 8ni*ersity o$ Chicago, 2002)
1hile the blunt $orce e%perimental method o$ trial and error is the o$ten used by artists, there
are structural approaches that may ma'e e%periments more producti*e) 1ith the ,nternet
there is no+ a +ealth o$ in$ormation about *arious scienti$ic e%periments o$ the past and
artists should borro+ ideas that +ill $urther their artistic e$$orts)
!T"# "%perimentation in the arts is not limited to *isual arts) -lays, poetry, no*els, music,
short stories, dance etc) all lend themsel*es to e%perimentation)
&ic' (oble Introduction to Scientific Experimental #ethods for $rtists% How Science and $rt &an Intersect -age 2 o$ 7
1hile ideas and methods $rom science can be 0uite use$ul to the artist, there are limits) A
scienti$ic disco*ery must meet the test o$ the scienti$ic method, meaning that the same results
must occur +hen the disco*ery is tested by independent scientists, i)e), the results must be
Ho+e*er, $or the artist, a good photograph is a good photograph, a good painting a good
painting 44 i$ it +or's, it +or's) othing $urther is needed) The only point in going $urther
+ould be to e%plore the possibilities o$ a ne+ly disco*ered e%perimental techni0ue that might
produce a series o$ interesting photographs or paintings)
$ENEA& S!EPS #" EXPEIMEN!A!I"N: $uidelines for artists
Step 91# Ha*e a general idea about +hat you are a$ter
,$ your ideas are too general, you +ill ha*e no guidance: on the other hand, i$ your ideas are
too speci$ic, you might miss promising possibilities that don.t $it +ith your e%pectations)
Step 92# (o some initial tests
(etermine +hether this a*enue o$ e%ploration can yield promising results 44 in my case it +as
the Ferris 1heel pictures that sho+ed me the possibilities and also the range o$ e$$ects)
&ic' (oble Introduction to Scientific Experimental #ethods for $rtists% How Science and $rt &an Intersect -age ; o$ 7
,n one o$ my initial e%plorations to test my general ideas about motion and digital
photography, , used the mo*ement o$ a Ferris 1heel combined +ith camera mo*ement along
+ith the e$$ect o$ bright lights against a blac' night s'y) As a result , +as able to create a
*ariety o$ interesting e%perimental photographs +hich sho+ed me that , +ould be able to
capture a +ide range o$ motion e$$ects +ith digital photography and that it +as an a*enue
+orth e%ploring) ,n this series o$ pictures the top le$t $rame is a realistic picture o$ a Ferris
1heel at night and the other $i*e +ere created +ith motion e$$ects)
Step 9;# (e$ine the 'ey *ariables
1hat are the *ariables that you +ant to e%plore and +or' +ith<
Step 9=# Control other *ariables that are not part o$ the e%periment
Try to 'eep other *ariables constant and unchanging during the e%periment and i$ they must
change, be a+are o$ ho+ they change)
Step 97# Ha*ing understood the *ariables, try a number o$ di$$erent approaches and
"%plore a number o$ +ays to +or' +ith your 'ey *ariables)
Step 9># "%pect the une%pected
Assume that you +ill get results that don.t $it +ith your e%pectations) 3o o*er your results
many times, e*en those that did not +or', to see i$ something grabs your attention)
Step 9?# 8nderstand +hat you did
,t is important +hen e%perimenting to be able to 'no+ +hat you did +hen you get a good
result) This ability to bac'trac' and recreate +hat led to the result is crucial 44 other+ise all
you ha*e is a success$ul result that you 'no+ is possible, but no idea ho+ it happened)
!he Principle of &imited Sloppiness in Science:
1hy it is important to allo+ accident and unintended elements at times into the
/,$ too sloppy, then you ne*er get reproducible results, and then you ne*er
can dra+ any conclusions: but i$ you are 6ust a little sloppy, then +hen you see
something startling, ()))) you nail it do+n ())))) So , called it the .-rinciple o$ @imited
(elbruc', Aa%) ,nter*ie+) !ral History -ro6ect) -asadena# Cali$ornia ,nstitute o$
Technology Archi*es, 1B?C)
How a Closed Mind Can Pre(ent New Disco(eries:
Aen +ho ha*e e%cessi*e $aith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared $or
ma'ing disco*eries: they also ma'e *ery poor obser*ations) !$ necessity, they
obser*e +ith a preconcei*ed idea, and +hen they de*ise an e%periment, they can
see, in its results, only a con$irmation o$ their theory) ,n this +ay they distort
obser*ations and o$ten neglect *ery important $acts because they do not $urther
their aim)
5ernard, Claude) $n Introduction to the Study of Experimental #edicine(1C>7))
e+ Dor'# (o*er -ublications, ,nc), 1B7?)
&ic' (oble Introduction to Scientific Experimental #ethods for $rtists% How Science and $rt &an Intersect -age = o$ 7
%HA! !" D" %HEN )"* DISC"+E S"ME!HIN$ *SE#*&
Ay Ad*ice# 1hen you $ind a promising e$$ect, e%plore it thoroughly) 1hat you ha*e $ound is a
rich *ein o$ possibilities and you should mine it $or all you can get) A picture that loo'ed great
at the beginning might lead to a much stronger one +ith some more +or' 44 so treasure those
$irst successes but then test them and ta'e them to the limit to get the most out o$ them) This
area that you ha*e disco*ered, becomes a sub4Eone o$ your e%periment that is rich +ith
&ic' (oble Introduction to Scientific Experimental #ethods for $rtists% How Science and $rt &an Intersect -age 7 o$ 7