Reflections on Scientific Metaphor
Its May and we are now days away from the defense of my Thesis Degree Project. It is an appropriate time for reflection following the longest winter, metaphorically and literally. The use of scientific metaphor in my thesis has an interesting source and evolution. My thesis has been a very personal investigation into the interaction between “liquid” and “solid.” A specific curiosity that I suspect was born from my childhood living aboard sailboats. There are many layers to that experience that have been taken for granted but the phenomena associated with boats remains imprinted on my understanding of the world. My memory will arouse countless impressions of lapping water on a hull or bioluminescent algae to illuminate your path as you dingy to the boat at night. There is something very peculiar about occupying the water. In fact, it is unnatural to inhabit this space, but we do. We occupy this material through an intermediary or in more latent terms, a vessel. I would argue the experiences of this encounter are diverse and profound.
Before I had a thesis question I knew that I needed to travel. Travel has been a powerful tool for me as an introspective activity. The juxtaposition of myself in a foreign setting stimulates my imagination and provides clarity to my identity. While travel was fundamental to living aboard a boat, I intuitively sensed I would need to go beyond this familiar setting. I needed to travel to a neutral place. Not neutral in terms of culture, symbology or geography but neutral in terms of “knowing.” I choose Venice, Italy on instinct and sent myself to explore the notions I had of “liquid” and “solid”.
As I later began to define my question into liquid and solid I discovered a parallel language at home. During the many working dinners in the fall of my thesis year I found unexpected collaboration with my fiancé. While this could be academically taboo it was more than serendipitous that I had a biomedical engineer studying “Liquid and Solids” in an MCAT exam prep book. Suddenly the words that I had arrived at through subconscious rumination were the title to an entire physics chapter. I became enamored with the principles of buoyancy, gravity, viscosity, surface tension, and density as ideas to explore and exploit in the free space of studio. I highlight the freedom of this opportunity since I do not take for granted the incredible license a RISD education has provided me to “study” physics and chemistry in a haptic and playful manner.
Following my initial inquiry into liquid and solid I began to seek out an existing discourse among artists and designers. I set my research focus to Venice based on my confirmation that the city historically and currently possessed a strong connection to my theme. My research found extensive debate on whether the city was “sinking” or “floating,” thus reinforcing the physics principles I had previously encountered. However, some artists or designers would use the term “sink” metaphorically while others would speak literally or make sink manifest physically. Given the frequency of these ideas in Venice I began to collect and categorize instances of Sinking or Floating across literature, art, urban infrastructure, and architecture. Subcategories then emerged to encompass whether the language was literal or metaphorical. Across the roughly one hundred events catalogued patterns of behaviors began to reveal themselves. I then returned to my scientifically minded collaborator.
Having an individual with a science background within my immediate circle afforded me some luxuries with collaboration. I did not need to prepare my background and goals as an artist to situate the scientist within my domain. I also could speak without reservation or fear of incompetency with their material. I think the openness of the relationship allowed for a more fruitful exchange of ideas related to my thesis. For example, there was the freedom to ask why and how as often as needed to understand liquid-particle movement or atomic structure. Eventually our conversations would trigger a discussion of the Periodic table.
For my scientific partner the table was common knowledge and a familiar artifact. For myself, the table create a necessary trigger and framework. With my surface understanding of the table, I became attached to the gradient within the chart, and then the columns and rows with cross-secting groups of behaviors. There were also arrangements for outliers. Knowing my thesis and the catalogue I had been collecting, I imagined that I could “borrow” the principles of the table. My collaborator was surprised by the looseness perhaps of my translation. He described it as a visual interpretation of the meta structure. Alternatively, when he sees the chart his training has brought him to read the molecular consequences. In regards to the needs of my thesis, however, certain rules applied while others did not. An example of this would be that the chart was developed initially with the anticipation of future Elements not yet discovered. The anticipation of discovery seemed an appropriate metaphor pursuing a thesis. I took the borrowed notion of the table as a challenge of my own.
Deciding to explore the empty spaces of my own Elements chart meant that I had to calibrate my metaphor. This meant that I had to carefully assimilate every word of borrowed language into the needs of my thesis inquiry. I had to be rigorous with my new definitions and the unique collections of behaviors I had found within my site of Venice. This presented many instances where the metaphor was tested and I had to make decisions as the creator. Since when I have presented the Elements chart I have found that some interpretations are unique to my perspective since the act was ultimately a subjective one.
When my collaborator and I reflected on the table that I created we discussed these limitations in relation to the Periodic table. In the period table, inherent layers are possible when mapping a fundamental natural system with strong relationships among neighboring elements. Partially since behaviors can reduce down to the number of protons, electrons, etc. Although my metaphor is subjective, I paralleled the visual construction of the Periodic table to generate the immediate association with a viewer. The use of the chart allowed me an armature that I could expand upon. I could then organize the information I had into new sublayers such as infrastructure vs. literature or conceptual vs. fixed.
My use of scientific metaphor in my thesis seems to have manifested in two directions. Firstly, with ‘liquid’ and ‘solid,’ I took the most basic definition of these states and produced a complex set of associations and experiments. My studies in this investigation dealt with the human experience rather than the objective materialities. Overall, taking a seemingly simple scientific definition was rich in artistic interpretations. I realize however that an opposite pattern is present in my use of the table. Here, I took something that was more complex than my understanding or a simple definition, and boiled it down to a visual framework and approach to categorization. The result as general tool is likely too open for interpretation or one dimensional. However, within my thesis inquiry I believe it gave my ideas traction and new pathways of connection that I could not have conceived in the time I had.