Think Out, Explore, and Explain

Whether in the context of a science museum, or on the pages of a book, design plays today a pivotal role in scientific visualization, a concept that was formally coined not that long ago. Today, it is defined as an extended practice based on preparing information for different audiences, so they can chew on it with efficiency and effectiveness for whatever purpose they may be interested in, from feeding their own curiosity to advancing research.

Nevertheless, its value is sometimes called into question by a scientific community which sees it useful only in informal settings, and blames it for on occasion dumbing down the science that is being visualized. According to Professor Edward Tufte, who is noted for his writings on information design, this does not need to be the case, and an accurate scientific visualization is possible whether you are talking to a specific or broader audience. In his own words, “If your words aren’t truthful, the nest optically letter-spaced typography won’t help. And if your images aren’t on point, making them dance in color in three dimensions won’t help.” No one has said visualizing science for broader audiences is an easy task, but it may be one scientists need the help and skills of individuals with the right sensibility to address it. By doing it this way, it can be ensured the effect of dumbing down science will be minimized, and the outcome, whether science museum exhibits or planetarium shows, to list two examples, will please both scientists and the public.

If one designer has played an important and pioneer role in this, that is 20th century German graphic designer Will Burtin. His science exhibits are an example of the consequence of bringing art and science together: not only he had been exposed earlier in his career to the ins and outs of design, gaining immediate recognition both in Germany and the United States; and he had possessed an innate sense for the art of making majestic sculptures; but he had a genuine interest in science, which often translated into the obsessive preliminary research that would lead him to success among a very demanding scientific community, and allowed him to scientifically support his awe-inspiring sculptures.

Burtin believed that designers had the responsibility to attempt to make complex scientific problems easier to understand. His early strong-minded research approach to design is an extended trend nowadays, but was new and pioneering in the fifties. Burtin’s process included evolving and checking his original ideas in lively dialogue with experts, whether medical doctors or researchers, traveling from university to university in the United States and in Europe. In his mind, the role of a designer and a teacher were interchangeable, and he hoped to inspire audiences through his craft.

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William Burtin’s The Cell Exhibition

In 1957, at a time pharmaceutical company Upjohn was frustrated with the low impact its Scope magazine had among medical doctors, Burtin, then Scope’s art director, proposed that the pharmaceutical manufacturing firm should commission him to build a large scale scientific model of the human cell. Timing, from a scientific point of view, was ideal, as researchers believed understanding living cells was essential to fight cancer, and cytology was in fashion.

The Cell became a 24 feet across and 12 feet high visual, tactile, walk-through diagrammatic representation of a human red blood cell as envisioned by Burtin’s mind. Too much was still unknown about living cells to undertake an actual representation but for Burtin, demonstrating the functions of his large scale models was more important than resembling the actual elements depicted. Built of newly available easily-worked tube-shaped acrylic plastics, one mile of electric wiring, and brightly colored lights, the Cell was unveiled in September 1958 at the American Medical Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. Take home brochures for the Cell varied in size and content depending on the audience. Upjohn’s look-alive Cell model enchanted general public and scientists alike, despite of the latter having different earlier opinions on enlarged visual depictions of the living cell. Some of them even stated that the Cell was able to reduce six months of detailed research to six minutes of visual and physical exercise. Following its original success a second smaller six feet across traveling model (i.e., Mark II) was also built. Mark I went on to become a set for a two hour-long BBC science special, while Mark II went on to become a major attraction in Disneyland.

The Cell was followed by the Brain (1960), Metabolism (1963), Genes in Action (1966) and Defense of Life (1969). All his exhibits tended to be easy to assemble and take down, and included different media, becoming the first multimedia exhibits ever, way before the term was even coined.

Burtin’s approach to communicating science with the public culminated an interactive trend hinted at the dawn of the twentieth century at the Deutches Museum in Munich first, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago a few decades later. Science museums broke away from simply displaying specimens and renderings, there was room in them for imagining science with the ultimate goal of educating and inspiring citizens. In Burtin’s words, “this condensation of abstract planning into concrete imagery or projected models will have far-reaching consequences for education and for the further exploration of what we can think out, explore and explain.”

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William Burtin

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