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Introduction to Scientific Experimental
Methods for Artists:
How Science and Art Can Intersect
First printed in 2011 at HASTAC
(Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)
NOTE: This is the first of a continuing series of articles about art, science and experimentation by me, Rick Doble, the author
of and photographer for the book Experimental Digital Photography.
Science and art often involve a similar point of view. Experimenting is one of those areas.
Each discipline can learn from the other.
SCIENCE AND EXPERIMENTATION
In Plato's Dialogues, Socrates is asked: "How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not
know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you
should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? " And
Socrates agrees with the questioner.
While Plato's logic is impeccable, his argument is flawed. Scientists and artists do discover
things that they did not know. Often using intuition and not logic, experiments have shed light
on the unknown and brought what was formerly unclear within the grasp of human
The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
Just a few years after Plato wrote the Dialogues, the Greek Eratosthenes performed one of
the first experiments in which he showed the Earth was a globe and calculated the
circumference within 200 miles of today's measurements. And starting with Galileo, who many
believe pioneered the modern methods of experimenting, much of the modern world has been
constructed due to experiments.
While experimenting is often thought of as primarily a logical scientific tool, it is frequently all
too human -- even in the world of science. By definition experimentation explores areas that
have not been explored. While there are some guideposts, these can often be defined only in
the broadest terms. In the end, accident frequently plays a major role in scientific
experimentation. And in the end it often takes intuition and an open mind to understand the
nature of an unexpected result -- not unlike the intuitive mind of an artist.
Rick Doble Introduction to Scientific Experimental Methods for Artists: How Science and Art Can Intersect Page 1 of 5
It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It
was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper
and it came back and hit you. On consideration, I realized that this scattering
backward must be the result of a single collision, and when I made calculations I
saw that it was impossible to get anything of that order of magnitude unless you
took a system in which the greater part of the mass of the atom was concentrated
in a minute nucleus. It was then that I had the idea of an atom with a minute
massive center, carrying a charge.
Ernest Rutherford (commenting on his experiment that resulted in discovering the
basic structure of the atom)
As any scientist can explain, experimenting is an art. Some of the greatest findings have
come about because of a clever experiment that revealed a significant result such as
Rutherford's famous experiment mentioned above. And although every new experiment will
be different, there are lessons to be learned from past experimentation.
ART AND THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD OF EXPERIMENTING
I believe contemporary art can learn from science and incorporate some scientific methods
into its own quest for exploration. While art and science are quite different, experimentation
has been central to major art movements in the 20th century and today is a major trend with
digital art and photography.
All the members of the [Abstract Expressionist] group were experimental in their
approach. The absence of preconceived outcomes was a celebrated feature of
Mark Rothko (1947) wrote that
I think of my pictures as dramas... Neither the action nor the actors can be
anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an
unknown space... Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply
the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.
Galenson, David W. The Life Cycles of Modern Artists.National Bureau of
Economic Research, University of Chicago, 2002.
While the blunt force experimental method of trial and error is the often used by artists, there
are structural approaches that may make experiments more productive. With the Internet
there is now a wealth of information about various scientific experiments of the past and
artists should borrow ideas that will further their artistic efforts.
NOTE: Experimentation in the arts is not limited to visual arts. Plays, poetry, novels, music,
short stories, dance etc. all lend themselves to experimentation.
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WHERE SCIENCE AND ART DO NOT INTERSECT
While ideas and methods from science can be quite useful to the artist, there are limits. A
scientific discovery must meet the test of the scientific method, meaning that the same results
must occur when the discovery is tested by independent scientists, i.e., the results must be
However, for the artist, a good photograph is a good photograph, a good painting a good
painting -- if it works, it works. Nothing further is needed. The only point in going further
would be to explore the possibilities of a newly discovered experimental technique that might
produce a series of interesting photographs or paintings.
GENERAL STEPS FOR EXPERIMENTATION: Guidelines for artists
Step #1: Have a general idea about what you are after
If your ideas are too general, you will have no guidance; on the other hand, if your ideas are
too specific, you might miss promising possibilities that don't fit with your expectations.
Step #2: Do some initial tests
Determine whether this avenue of exploration can yield promising results -- in my case it was
the Ferris Wheel pictures that showed me the possibilities and also the range of effects.
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In one of my initial explorations to test my general ideas about motion and digital
photography, I used the movement of a Ferris Wheel combined with camera movement along
with the effect of bright lights against a black night sky. As a result I was able to create a
variety of interesting experimental photographs which showed me that I would be able to
capture a wide range of motion effects with digital photography and that it was an avenue
worth exploring. In this series of pictures the top left frame is a realistic picture of a Ferris
Wheel at night and the other five were created with motion effects.
Step #3: Define the key variables
What are the variables that you want to explore and work with?
Step #4: Control other variables that are not part of the experiment
Try to keep other variables constant and unchanging during the experiment and if they must
change, be aware of how they change.
Step #5: Having understood the variables, try a number of different approaches and
Explore a number of ways to work with your key variables.
Step #6: Expect the unexpected
Assume that you will get results that don't fit with your expectations. Go over your results
many times, even those that did not work, to see if something grabs your attention.
Step #7: Understand what you did
It is important when experimenting to be able to know what you did when you get a good
result. This ability to backtrack and recreate what led to the result is crucial -- otherwise all
you have is a successful result that you know is possible, but no idea how it happened.
A DELICATE BALANCE BETWEEN CONTROL AND ACCIDENT
The Principle of Limited Sloppiness in Science:
Why it is important to allow accident and unintended elements at times into the
"If you're too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never
can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see
something startling, (...) you nail it down (...). So I called it the 'Principle of Limited
Delbruck, Max. Interview. Oral History Project. Pasadena: California Institute of
Technology Archives, 1978.
How a Closed Mind Can Prevent New Discoveries:
Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for
making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they
observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can
see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort
observations and often neglect very important facts because they do not further
Bernard, Claude. An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine(1865).
New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957.
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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DISCOVER SOMETHING USEFUL
My Advice: When you find a promising effect, explore it thoroughly. What you have found is a
rich vein of possibilities and you should mine it for all you can get. A picture that looked great
at the beginning might lead to a much stronger one with some more work -- so treasure those
first successes but then test them and take them to the limit to get the most out of them. This
area that you have discovered, becomes a sub-zone of your experiment that is rich with
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