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J R Soc Med. 2004 January; 97(1): 47.
PMCID: PMC1079278

Experiment: Conversations in Art and Science

Reviewed by C J Dickinson

Editors: Bergit Arends, Davina Thackara
360 pp Price £16.99 ISBN 1-842129-043-2 (p/b)
London: Wellcome Trust, 2003 .

sciart (no capital letters) is the name of a Wellcome Trust funded scheme which is also supported by the Arts Council of England, the British Council, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Its object is to explore and show the links between art and science in many different areas. Some 32 projects were awarded grants during the period 2000–2002. This publication gives an account of seven of them. The result is a collection as diverse as might be imagined. They include a study of jellyfish, which was made into a film; an appreciation of cognitive behavioural techniques (called ‘How to Live’); an illustrated review of the epidemiology of malaria in Kenya and Uganda; a rather strange account of organ music, concentrating on the low-frequency vibrations/sounds produced by so-called 32 foot organ pipes (described by the authors as ‘soundless music’); drawings and paintings by seriously disabled young people (entitled ‘Navigating Memories’); a description of a 4-minute piece of music by the French composer Marais, inspired by the operation (endured by Pepys) of being cut to remove a bladder stone; and an introduction to the mathematics of juggling, called ‘Baby Epsilons’. In each of these diverse fields the authors found artistic inspiration which is appropriately illustrated. No consistent theme emerges. For example, there are photographs of the old Southwark operating theatre, the surgical instruments used in it, and a manuscript of music describing the bladder operation. The first chapter contains coloured photographs of exotic jellyfish.

For most of these projects the adjective ‘self-indulgent’ springs to my mind. Clearly the grant holders have enjoyed themselves and the book conveys their enjoyment quite successfully. Much the most interesting chapter (to this reviewer) contained brief life stories of seriously disabled children, alongside some of their paintings and drawings. I found this chapter inspiring—a reminder of how human beings can overcome appalling handicaps.

There are some irritations. Some of the black and white photographs are poorly reproduced. Artistically small type (? 8-pt) is used unnecessarily in many places, with large blank spaces between lines and around paragraphs. The book illustrates almost too well what one of the editors calls ‘randomness in scientific method’, leaving the reader with the impression that the ‘sciart’ scheme will fund almost anything, however bizarre. But I would have to admit that the authors have given an account of some decent science which has also inspired some attractive art.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press