Observation vs. Interpretation: A Conversation between 3 Scientists and 1 Artist

I started working on a new animation. After the first one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpC0Xx633as) was so well received by the scientists, it energized me to make another. So the other day, I sat out on the deck with Katin - a German scientist - and we talked for a few hours. At first she was helping me fill in all the blank spots with the outline I started, and generally correcting my science. It was pretty cool - she's pretty cool. She understands that I may not use all of the information she was throwing at me, and that I'll have to adjust a lot of the wording to make it appropriate for a 3rd grader to understand. So, she just talked, and I listened and took notes, and asked questions when appropriate.

Afterwards we got into this discussion about observation vs. interpretation. She started venting to me about her frustration with science at the moment. She's young, and just finished her dissertation. She's frustrated for a few reasons, but one cause is the method of writing descriptions for core samples, and collecting data in general. There is plenty they interpret and there isn't a standard way to observe something. If someone else describes a green blobby thing in a certain way and calls it calcium, and then Katin looks at the samples to analyze, every time she sees a green blobby thing that looks kind of like what they described, she'll assume that it's calcium. There's no cross checking.

I had to laugh a few times listening to her talk because I've had similar conversations with my artist friends. Every time we create a piece, we have to carefully consider how someone else will interpret it. We agreed that going down this line of thought takes you into a philosophical frame of mind. It was just really interesting to me to see such an overlap of art and science coming to the same conclusions in entirely separate environments.

Later in our discussion, Marie, a French-born woman who has lived in Japan for years, and now has a thick Japanese accent (which amazes me every time I watch her talk) joined us at the table. She's a senior scientist and basically came to the table saying, "I'm not listening to this complaint anymore. You see something in the water swimming, it has fins, and it has scales - you're going to call it a fish. You may not know which specific fish, but you're going to call it a fish."

By this time Margot, another French scientist came to join us as well. She's been all over the world to study and also had some insight. She said something to the effect of, "even with the best of intentions, you start your day out writing and describing all of your samples. But by the third day...without a shower...on top of a mountain...in the desert...you get bored. So your descriptions become, 'Yep. This one looks like the other one,' and you're not really examining anymore. You get so focused on one aspect because there's so much to look at." She continued to tell us a story where she had gone back to this same site a few years later after studying up on carbon, looked at the same exact rocks she had seen the first time, and this time saw there were tons of carbon present. She said, "I thought to myself, 'What! Where did this come from?! I didn't see any of this last time!"

I laughed because I could certainly relate. "It's funny how things influence you," I said. "The shirt I am wearing right now is green...but it's in that weird range where if I was standing next to a blue wall, someone could absolutely think it's blue."

Listening to them talk, my mind started to drift to figure drawing class, and getting so bored with the series of 4 billion 15 second contour line drawings of the figure. The difference is though, we've been trained to continue to see and observe. Those 4 billion drawings trained us to warm up and get better as we continued to draw for 6 hours. We gained the skills to stay focused, and also keep in mind the big picture, and not to get overwhelmed with the little details, that then get left out (...or to know when to leave what out)

The conversation on the deck gave me a brain storm of ideas. I said, "you know what I think we should do? It sounds like you guys need some lessons in observations..." I listed off a few different exercises I could teach them. Most of them party games - or I should say...the games at parties that art kids have - that involve writing a sentence and then passing the sheet of paper to your left, and the new person has to illustrate the sentence. The sheet gets passed again, and the new person has to guess what the initial sentence was just based on the drawing. It's a fun game, but not exactly practical because everyone on board is so busy right now. So I suggested doing a spin on it. I said, "OK, how about this: what if I pull someone aside for like 5 minutes, and have them describe something...like this," I picked up my coffee mug sitting in front of me. "They'll have to objectively describe this mug, and then I'll pull someone else aside and they'll have to guess what the object was, and so on."

Margot said, "Now THAT is an excellent idea." Katin added, "yeah, and you should have 2 people describe the same object just to see how different it will be." Marie suggested, "yeah, yeah! just get like 5 people, but only 2 objects!" It really made me happy they were all so keen to the idea.

We talked some more about illustrations and things. I've heard since I've been here that they have to actually draw the core sometimes. Each spoke at the same time, "Nah," they said. "Not anymore. Now it's 'we push a button, and a camera takes a picture." I was disappointed a little, but told them I'd still like to see what they look like and maybe try it myself. Katin jumped in, "yeah! that'd be great! A truly objective person - because you wouldn't know what you were seeing. You'd just be drawing certain aspects. None of it would have any significance to you because you wouldn't know which speck was which component." We all agreed. And with that our conversation started to die down.

We all had work to do.