Tag Archive for: Eyes + Sight

Charles Darwin Trust

Looking With Darwin, for the Darwin and Twentieth Century Culture working group convened by the Darwin Trust (Wellcome Trust, 2005)


A closed consultation on developing Down House and other outreach activities of the Darwin Trust, this event convened a group of about 25 scientists, authors, academics, artists and broadcasters under the direction of Jon Turney.  The intention was to assist the Trust in the orientation of its stewardship of Down House and other of its outreach and science communication activities.

I was invited to speak for about ten minutes as one of several kick-off presentations for what became a lively and productive day.  The following are excerpts from that contribution:


In the same way that genes will express very differently in two different chemical environments, visions of life will express differently from one culture to the next.

This projective nexus of “multiple allusions” in which animals are caught up, this nexus of anthropomorphisation, denigration, lionising, fear, idolatry and so much else, is something that has to be tackled in order to truly see the life which we share. In Steve Baker’s important book The Postmodern Animal — about animals, philosophy and contemporary artists’ practices — he makes the point that “the representational, symbolic and rhetorical uses of the animal must be understood to carry as much conceptual weight as any idea we may have of the ’real’ animal, and must be taken just as seriously.”

Like the production of scientific knowledge, works of art are the product of sustained observational practices and sometimes overlap directly the purposes and interests of science. Sometimes works of art extend the arenas of science and even the methodologies of science. Visual art is not just an interpretive tool or a communicative tool in its long relationship to scientific practice. I identify with one of the few skills that the modest Charles Darwin knew to be key about his work: the skill of close and sustained observation. It is not just the stunning accuracy of Durer which makes his work ’scientific’, but the fact that he chose at that moment in time to do something as unusual as to spend an entire week observing an insect such as a stag beetle.



One of the things I find most moving about Darwin’s work is the awe in which he held the organ of sight. This awe has been seen as a weakness by both Darwinists and opponents. Dawkins has called the eye “the most formidable cliff Mount Improbable has to offer.”

A very great deal of research — not least by Dawkins himself, and people like Mike Land at the University of Sussex and Andrew Parker at Oxford — has gone into understanding the eye and its evolution since Darwin first admitted freely that its depths were unfathomable to him. His statement never led me personally to doubt that the theory of evolution was a sound proposition. I am not one of those who think the rainbow is unwoven by what science can tell me, or that complexity is always irreducible. But there is a nuance: I am one of those for whom scientific knowledge is, however often unimpeachable and amazing in itself, only a part of the picture. I have friends and colleagues at the Institute of Ophthalmology, others in quantum optics, and still others who design photon-detectors. But, if asked by Edge Magazine — as many senior scientists were last year — to articulate a belief I hold which is not yet provable, I would say that I believe that the eye emits a ray of some kind.

Though some colleagues admit that it is very likely that there are both particles and radioactivity that we don’t yet know how to detect, most people in science to whom I have confided this belief think it’s preposterous, a throwback to the Pre-Socratics. It is quite possible that even expressing this hunch will mean that you will discredit everything else I have said here — in much the same way that some people discredit the entire theory of evolution based on Darwin’s own expressed concern that the eye’s complexity was so great as to set it outside a process of evolution.

What I am trying to say is that there is as much potential science in doubt on the one hand and in persistent belief on the other hand as there is in actual scientific proof. I am trying also to draw your attention to arenas which have become so polarised that they are avoided, when in fact their very messiness — like that of our relation to animals or our feelings about sight — offer exciting potential to explore ideas that do not stop being science just because they enter a cultural realm.

It is important to remember, in defending the theory of evolution, that there are complex human beliefs — not any of them religious — which engage contrapuntally with, live alongside, and sometimes even produce science. One of the most trenchant ripostes to the tenet that folk belief is just pre-science comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.”

The new Darwin Forum would do well to pay attention to the contiguity of belief and proof. What and how we see and how we feel about this is bound up in what we make for each other to look at. This has physiological, cognitive and phenomenological underpinnings; effects and affects.  It is something we do with our bodies. The electromagnetic radiation of light is a deep driver of evolution and possibly part of the origin of life itself. An exciting programme at the Darwin Trust would put visual art, light and the eye close to the heart of its activities, not just as an instrument of communication, but as a means to nurture conjecture.



Further Links: The Charles Darwin Trust; Down House

[Image References: Rabbit, by Albrecht Durer (1502); Rabbit, by Jeff Koons (1986); the eye of a squid; visualisation of the evolution of the eye as a landscape in which height represents optical quality and the ground plane evolutionary distance by Professor Mike Land (1996)]

NESTA Fellowship

Fellow, National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (2004 to 2007)


Three year Senior Fellowship awarded by closed nomination for research exploring observational practice across scientific disciplines — astronomy, particle physics, spectroscopy, ophthalmology — and identifying potential methodological alignments between these practices and artistic practices.

The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts was set up through an endowment from the UK National Lottery in 1998, and has been through several ideological and corporate incarnations.  In the beginning under Jeremy Newton, and through the time that I was a Fellow, it was clearly focused on nurturing UK creativity across the arts, sciences, design and technology — its brand was ‘creative investor’.

The complex application procedure began with a closed nomination: my name had been put forward to them by a senior advisor, which meant that I received a call from NESTA inviting me to apply for a Fellowship. Following that, there were two sets of interviews at NESTA, a formal written application with a research plan and budget for three years’ work, letters from three referees, and an external evaluation interview — with Jim Al-Kahlili.

My main activities included a residency period of over a year at the Institute of Astronomy of Cambridge University.  This was both formative and productive, and led to my curating the COSMOS section of James Peto’s exhibition You Are Here: The Design of Information at the Design Museum.  I was also able to formulate a brief history of plate-measuring and scanning machines in astrophysics — Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime — which became a contribution to the History of Scientific Observation project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

Of course, the overarching common interest between astronomers and artists is light: and I learned how much more to light there is than the visible spectrum, as well as the co-extensiveness of light with all other matter by dint of its particulate nature. The fact that it is possible to ascertain the elementary makeup of matter by measuring its radiation — often light itself — is profoundly exciting. Spectroscopy is one of the techniques I explored during this period.

Researchers at the IoA and also at the Cavendish Laboratory across the Madingley Road were generous with their time, and I received both formal and informal mentoring from Dr Robin Catchpole and Dr Jon Zwart.  The Institute’s Librarian, Mark Hurn, shared his history of astronomy knowledge and more, and I attended conferences and classes as an observer. Professors Craig McKay and Alexander Boksenberg, alongside Dr Mike Irwin, were especially helpful in illuminating the links — both theoretical and technological — between photons and data sets, via detectors and photomultipliers.

Understanding how data is collected is one thing; grasping how it is analysed is another.  The evolution of mathematical understanding from probability and statistics to computed algorithms is also a move from human to computer calculations.  I was lucky enough to have Professor Marcus du Sautoy as a maths mentor during my Fellowship, and my comprehension of mathematical concepts has been greatly increased.  Sadly, the ability to actually apply any of these concepts to sets of numbers, or express them mathematically rather than in words, is still lacking.

I became captivated by the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine, an instrument which Mike Irwin had spent most of his career cajoling into creating vast accurate numerical representations of the near universe.  The APM, now decommissioned, existed to scan All-Sky-Survey photographs in the interregnum before all astronomical data came routinely from particle detectors.  It is essentially the history of this unique machine — designed in the 1970s by Ed Kibblewhite — that I outlined in Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime.

Not all those astrophysical particle detectors are out in the sky on satellite telescopes, either. Several are deep underground, where the mantle of the earth protects them from interference.  One such instrument is the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which I visited in the framework of my NESTA Fellowship in March of 2006. It was a complex period for SNO; they were in the middle of a major building programme above ground, and were planning a second phase of experiments for the huge instrument, SNO+ — a phase that was at that time not assured of funding. It is one of the most important astrophysics instruments ever created, and I was very honoured to be so well received at such a critical moment.



The perfect little model you see here is of the heavy-water Cherenkov detector that is the core of the facility. The real thing is so big it requires a cavity in the rock the size of a ten story building, and it is installed two kilometers below the surface.  They carefully prepared me for the trip down the mineshaft and into the observatory; I was so excited that I hardly noticed the fear. It was one of the most terrifying things I have ever willingly done.

I was also given a tour of the new research building being constructed to replace the series of sheds and portacabins that had housed the project’s researchers from the beginning. I was able to return in some small way the knowledge exchange by advising Director of Operations Dr Fraser Duncan with a list of the material culture items that it would be advisable to preserve and exhibit in the new building’s ‘trophy case’ once the move was complete.  It is so often the case in these moves that things get thrown out that in 30 years’ time would be vital clues to an historian — or indeed to a later astrophysicist. The smallest thing on my list was a mousetrap, and the largest was the iconic silver workshop formed from an old railway car: Shed P31. The history of physics is littered with sheds and their mousetraps, and it’s a history that remains to be told.



Some of the most important and productive areas of creativity are those which overlap between NESTA’s areas of arts, sciences and technology. This can be the case in the practice of individuals as well as in the practice of teams. Though the research and projects that I effected during the Fellowship were mainly self-directed, they intersected with a range of team-based institutions.

A big plus to being a NESTA Fellow for me was the opportunity to meet and exchange with colleagues working in science fields that were new to me. The Science Crucible Laboratories organised by Nicola Turner and later by Alan Morton — whom I had first met whilst working at the Science Museum — are a case in point. Groups of early-career researchers and those interested in interdisciplinary work and science communication were awarded for a year-long period that included regular meetings and mentoring.

On some of those occasions, other NESTA awardees were invited to be part of weekend retreats.  I spoke to the 2005 Crucible Meeting at Dartington College of Arts, alongside Mark Miodownik of the Materials Library, on the subject of Creativity. Among many other things I spoke about, I outlined the friendship that sprang up in 1950s Berkeley between the great American composer Harry Partch and the physicist Lauriston C Marshall, then Director of High Voltage Engineering at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory:

These two different men saw something in each other that was about the fundamentals of waves and resonance. Larry learned to play Harry’s instruments and was one of the few who understood the mathematical underpinnings of his ‘just intonation’ and the physics behind his music theory. In 1950 they applied jointly and successfully for a Guggenheim grant to develop an electronic organ. In a short two years a great body of work was produced by this pair, ranging from musical compositions to early software and even shared MSc students: William Max Muller’s successful thesis was entitled “A Cathode Ray Tube Harmonic Generator for Musical Tone Production” — Glass and Gas!


At the latter end of my Fellowship, I returned to questions of the visible light spectrum, and had a closer look at ophthalmology with a view to understanding the physiology behind phenomenological experiences of light. NESTA’s Alan Morton arranged for several Fellows to spend the day at the UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology with Professor Fred Fitzke.  I was also mentored by optometrist Andrew Field.

I became interested in the possibility of the reuse and repurposing of ophthalmological examination instruments and astronomical observation instruments — both optical and particle detection. The great advantage to having a period of time on such a research Fellowship is that hunches and interests become focused into frameworks for study and, ultimately, long-term projects.  As I wrote in 2005:

One sphere is the finite laws of physics which govern light, another sphere is the finite physiology of seeing — receiving light — and a third intersecting sphere in this Venn diagram would be the manmade instruments which manipulate light. I believe that somewhere in the intersection of these three spheres is a core of consciousness, and I also believe that we need as many phenomenologists as we do neurologists to explore this issue. We need as many artists as we need physicists. We need historians and we need historiographers. In short, we need to forge whole new methodologies.

Looking Back Towards the Light: An Artist in the Observatory, lecture delivered University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, University of Calgary (2005)



Further Links: NESTA; Institute of Astronomy; Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; UCL/Wellcome Institute of Ophthalmology

[Image References: Institute of Astronomy Coradi Plate Measuring Table, in the shadow of Isaac Newton; Model of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory instrument showing the disposition of photomultipliers; Shed P31 workshop from Sudbury Neutrino Observatory; NESTA Fellows away-day meeting in 2006 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, with l-r the then Director Michael Harrison, Brian Duffy (legs only!), Allan McRobie, Tom Shakespeare, Jane Prophet, Lise Autogena and Alan Morton]

Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford

Research Residency, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (1996 to 1998)


The Laboratory at the Ruskin School has been at the forefront of articulating the research activities of artists and making the case for its value. The Lab involved me in a number of innovative projects in the late 1990s, and I produced an artists’ website entitled ‘Rain of Atoms’ about Democritus’s extraordinary — and eerily accurate — intuitions about the atomic structure of matter.

I believe the Lab was among the first institutions to commission artists’ websites, and certainly was the first art academy to do so.  Paul Bonaventura, who runs the Lab, paired me up with Peter Ride at Artec, and we spent several months to make what would now, a decade and more later, take a day or two to produce.  Sadly, it has gone the way of much early digital artwork, upgraded out of all existence.  This ephemerality is also time-honoured in time-based art, so I’m fairly sanguine about it. Later on, I used some of the same images for the logo of the Dennis Rosen Trust, and you can get a sense of Rain of Atoms from it.

It was quite abstract — literally a black screen with a little window through which hundreds of roundelles (spheroid images taken from across the history of science) fell like atomic rain; cosmic rays suddenly made visible as if the viewer were looking through an electron microscope magically constructed from the CDU’s cathode ray.  Quaint as it may sound, the website won Lycos’s ‘website of the week’ award in 1997 — that gives you an idea of how much faster things are moving now.

Other sites the the Lab commissioned were David Bickerstaff’s Ubiquity, and an early version of Jake Tilson’s The Cooker.

During this period, Antonia Payne (now at University of Wolverhampton) worked closely with Paul to forge links between artists, art schools, and humanities departments of universities. Antonia convened the pivotal conference Research and the Artist at the Ruskin in 1999, editing the volume of the same name. She devised a project called Inserts, commissioning artists to make bookworks for scholarly journals, and invited me to make a work. At the time, I was working on Atomism & Animism, a major collection interpretation project for the Science Museum, London.

As a long-standing member of the British Society for the History of Science, I thought it would be fun to contribute, as an artist, to the Society’s journal. The result, which you see above, was a translucent work about seeing celestial bodies (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4).  This is from the introduction:

A Metaphysical Subject” is a double-sided, translucent collage juxtaposing diagrams by Wittgenstein and by Sacrobosco, a 13th century natural philosopher. The work was created for this unique moment between two total eclipses of the sun — in February of 1998, visible from the Caribbean, and in August of 1999, visible from Cornwall, England. Eclipses have been viewed — often literally — as moments to mark civilisation: “A Metaphysical Subject” reflects on the age old relationship between human self-consciousness and the knowledge of the heavens.

In 1996, the Ruskin School’s Joseph Beuys Lectures addressed the relationship between art and science, and I opened the proceedings with a presentation entitled ‘Paradigm and Diagram: How Artists Think Science.’

These days in the world of contemporary art a great deal of money is being poured into what is called ‘new technology.’ The adjective “wired” is indiscriminantly applied as a name to both exhibitions and magazines. We struggle to remember that tools are only a part of method, and not synonymous with it. There seems to be about works of art constructed in and through smooth ‘new technology’ a strange frisson of verity, as if the hardware made the work into hard fact, and as if artists working with new electronic technology were somehow more scientifically-minded than artists making work in what is now considered more traditional media. New technology must not make the error of donning the mantle of objectivity that science at its best has only recently managed to slough off. Since all true objectivity is both relative and ideal, can we not say that it is also entirely subjective, and hence embrace the powerful structure of subjectivity as a ripe field of information and understanding? I wish to differentiate between science and technology not to hierarchize them as we have mistakenly done with arts and crafts, and high art and popular culture, but rather to make the point that there is a difference between knowledge or understanding that is of things themselves, and knowledge of means to ends.

Since that time — over 15 years ago now — an entire field of self-reflexive artists’ practice interrogating new technologies has grown up.  But not everyone is listening, as there is still uneven understanding in several fields concerning the relationship between science and technology, and between intellectual innovations and technological ones.  The 1996 Beuys lectures were recorded by Audio Arts for audio cassette distribution, possibly among the last of those publications, as DAT and the mini-disc took over as ‘means to ends.’  They too are now historical.


Further Links: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; British Society for the History of Science; Audio Arts; Joseph Beuys Lectures; Research and the Artist Conference

[Image References: Newton, Prism Experiment Diagram (1665/1704) shown in my lecture Paradigm and Diagram; Martha Fleming, A Metaphysical Subject (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4)]