I spy with my little eye
“It’s all about perception,” but really! On the third day of InScience, scientists and filmmakers gave their perspective on the art of science. Along with our visitors, we leapt into space with Heino Falcke’s lecture and deepened our understanding of the power of technology and our responsibility for drawing boundaries at the Filosofisch Café. We’ve collected some highlights of the day.
The Bit Player
“Is there a relationship between playfulness and the ability for science?” asked Maarten Lamers, assistant professor at Leiden university, after the screening of The Bit Player. Lamers thinks that there is a parallel between a playful mind and being an academic, although he was not quite able to put his finger on why this sometimes is the case. The Bit Player, a combination between a documentary and a movie, is about a great scientist who also happened to have a playful mind and unlimited curiosity. His name was Claude Shannon. Shannon’s work laid the foundation for all digital communication. What makes this documentary by Mark Levinson, who was also present at the screening, unique is that aside from explaining Shannon’s revolutionary ideas about communication, it also portrays a person who was proud of the many gadgets that he built.
Doing science requires great focus and persistence, and Shannon had that: he worked on his ideas for 10 years – on his own – late in the night and in the weekends. But Shannon also had an affinity for building things for the fun of it – with no particular goal in mind. Among the many gadgets that Shannon built that had no particular use were robots that could juggle and even unicycles that he and his daughter would ride. While listening to Mark Levinson and Maarten Lamers discuss playfulness, it occurred to me, as well as other audience members, that doing scientific research for the sake of exploration is not always compatible with how research is organized these days. Maarten Lamers agreed with the observation from the audience that nowadays there is not much room for playfulness because of the focus on delivering scientific results: with the increasing pressure in academia, playfulness decreases. But at the same time, Lamers also stressed that precisely for this reason stories about playful academics should be told more often.
The Other Side of Mars
After the film, the viewers were invited to listen to the talk between Martijn Stevens, humanities scientist at Radboud University, and the filmmakers Maria Molina Peiró and Minna Långström. Who discussed their opinions about the films, and gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions. “There is no such thing as seeing, the way we see and perceive is very much based on our education and scientific background.” When speaking about the perception of the visual information of images, the transition from a scientific to a philosophical debate is not far. Photography’s ability to directly capture what’s in front of the camera is often seen as an objective registration, but film and photography also contain a fictional element. The photographer, as well as the viewer of an image, are both influenced by their subjective perception.
“If you aren’t trained to watch certain images or if you don’t know what you are looking at, you will not see”, says Martijn Stevens. What we see is influenced by our expectations of what we think it should look like. Stevens also emphasizes the power of images as a tool to distribute information, captured in the common adage „A picture speaks more than a thousand words“. This makes them an important medium for scientific communication to the public, but also vulnerable to misinterpretation and distortion.
Do we perceive a film as real, just because we can identify the images on screen or are we only perceiving what we are trained to see? And why are pictures, especially such costly ones of Mars, so important? Maria Molina Peiró and Minna Långström agree that publishing images of Mars and other planets is a way for institutions such as NASA to give back to the public. As important as it was to get to the moon in 1969, it was equally important to document this milestone for the public. Although today’s publication of new planet imagery is not as groundbreaking as the first photos of the moon were, they are still important, as they give us insight into today’s scientific research.
Text: Julija Vaitonyte en Pia Czarnetzki
Photos: Almicheal Fraay en Christa van Vliet