The Art of Science

I met Nick Mayer when ordering a gorgeous Blue Lobster print of his.  I have this thing about Blue Lobsters, seeing them in Maine and as a metaphor for innovation in that this rare phenotype results from serendipity and random collisions of genes. Nick's art is an amazing and beautiful integration of art and biology in watercolor.  Here is Nick's powerful story of how Science is Art and Art is Science.
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Art and science have played an analogous, ever-present role in my evolution as a person, like two arms of a chromosome swinging in a cell’s cytoplasm during metaphase, at times distant then colliding and exchanging information. 

As a child I always was interested in nature. I remember summer days catching frogs and turtles that in my nostalgia appear as a deep uninterrupted trance.  I recall hours studying the illustrations of deep-sea fish in my Time Life Series book The Sea.  Between the turtles, the illustrations in The Sea, and the romance of Treasure Island, I was launched on a trajectory that needed to seek out adventure, The Seaanalyze the world through intense observation, and then make sense of it through drawing. 

I rejected the status quo for a while seeking adventure aboard commercial fishing boats in Alaska and elsewhere, but eventually that adventure seeking turned inward.  After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, I spent two decades working as a scientist.  I wore the hat of fisheries biologist, science teacher, environmental scientist, and even worked on an extraordinary robotics project, but in the end while the science jobs paid the bills, what I was really passionate about was painting.  A year and a half ago I simply could not hold the cork on my 24/7 geyser of creativity any longer and took the plunge into working for myself as a full time artist.  All of my experiences as a scientist have given me the background to be the artist I am today.  The transition to being an artist was a natural progression. 

In my mind art and science are so similar—the cornerstone skill of each is astute and reflective observation.  Both science and art are ways of making sense of the world, physics could not exist without 3D modeling, anatomy could not exist without illustration.  In early days science WAS art and pretty much that was it.  Look at the painstakingly scientific, yet beautiful art of Ernst Haeckel. The work of the naturalist in Darwin’s time was to be an illustrator.  Biology was the study of form and function and its resulting taxonomy.  In Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle Part IV: Fish, the entirety of the text is a description of W Hawkins’ illustrations, “There are no scales on the snout or jaws, or between the eyes, or on the anterior portion of the suborbital  . . .” (pg 4). The entirety of Grey’s Anatomy is the same, painstakingly astute descriptions of observations and the associated engravings. 

All this connectivity makes me scratch my head and wonder why STEM wasn’t always STEAM and why such aHaeckel Crinoid distinction is made between science, stereotypically left brained/ logical/ necessary and art, seen as right brained/ touchy feely/ optional.  My twenty years of work as a scientist has lead me to the conviction that science is subjective, based on context, and completely dynamic.

At first glance it is obvious that my work is highly influenced by science.  It is influenced by the master pioneers in this genre like Haeckel, Hawkins, & Audubon, who inspire my work.  While I am not the first person to have observed, painted, and classified a blue lobster, painting is the process by which I understand the blue lobster.  Once I’ve stared at a seemingly random pattern on a fish’s back for hours and hours, there is always a point at which I realize that it is not random; there is a pattern here, its just a very complicated one.  And then I paint it.

My most recent commissioned painting, a coelacanth, is a great example of this.  The coelacanth is essentially a living dinosaur—based upon the fossil record it was thought to have gone extinct 80 million years ago and then a live specimen was caught in the Indian Ocean in 1938.  They are the closest link between fish and the first amphibians, which made the transition from sea to land in the Devonian period. There is no other fish that looks remotely like a Coelacanth with their large head of bony plates, missing backbone, triangle-shaped spots, and small arms with hand-like fins on the ends.  Since sightings are relatively rare, especially of live, unstressed specimens, I had a real struggle trying to find some accurate reference photos for the color of these creatures. 

Nick Mayer: Pencil of CoelacanthOddly enough upon discussing the dilemma with my good friend Jon Council, the scientific consultant for a book I recently completed illustrating (Catalina Dive Buddies by Mike Rivkin), I learned that a friend of his, Laurent Ballesta, had just completed the world’s most extensive coelacanth expedition (speaking of serendipity and random collisions).  Jon made the introduction. The coelacanth is a slow-growing deep water fish, inhabiting depths from 300 ft-1,000 ft.  I was shocked to hear that Laurent Ballesta et al. as part of his Projet Gombessa dove to these depths with his team to gently capture the coelacanth in its natural habitat on film. Laurent shared his observations about the coelacanth’s color as well as some of his soon to be released photos of the coelacanth.  These photos are without a doubt the best images of the species the world will have ever seen when they are released in his upcoming book on the expedition in 2014.  The interplay of serendipity, science, and art resulted in the finished painting here.  Nick Mayer: Coelacanth

Of course, as with most rare species discovered these days, the current status is not a pretty one.  Despite the creation of a Marine Protected Area, the coelacanth are now being dredged from the depths by Japanese deep trawlers and the Tanzanian Port Authority has plans to create a deepwater port in the vicinity the sanctuary.  I will be donating a portion of my entire Coelacanth print sales to Oceana, one of the most solid organizations dedicated to protecting the worlds oceans.

America's Future is #RCUS

After every BIF, we always wonder if it can get any better and each year is as unique and powerful as the one before. This is a testimony to the human spirit. The media tells us everything that's wrong in the world but it's Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS) that show us otherwise.  This year, I had the honor of being a story-teller and can attest to the optimism and realistic hope.

Our hope for the future is based in #RCUS.  The more #RCUS, the more we meet people with whom we create powerful positive solutions to our world's wicked problems. #RCUS inspires and transforms our world in ways we may know now, later or may not ever realize.  Here are a few BIF9 Storytellers who inspired me.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colliding Towards Innovation

My previous post on serendipity and randomness has caused a #RCUS (Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects via Saul Kaplan)!  Many of you have commented, shared personal experiences of Random “happy accidents” and cited “serendipity” research.  Thank you!

Let’s look at the 2nd letter – C: Collisions.  It originated in the early 15th Century as the Middle Frenchcollision from the same period of Latin collisionen, “a dashing together”. The definitions imply a variety of outcomes: 1) the act or process of colliding; a crash or conflict; 2) Physics: a brief dynamic event consisting of the close approach of two or more particles, such as atoms, resulting in an abrupt change of momentum or exchange of energy [emphasis mine].  While the first definition is rather violent, and innovation can arise from major clashes and conflicts, the 2nd definition is closer to type of Collision in #RCUS.

Think about the people you have met, collided into (virtually or literally), and the relationships and results – personal and professional.  Here are but a very few, examples:

  • A friend of mine deliberately collided with a very cute guy on the NYC subway (not Random) and 25 yrs. later, they are still married with a kid going to college.
  • Last year, I was on a flight, buried in my reading, as was the guy next to me.  For some serendipitous reason, we started chatting and now he’s a great client making a remarkable positive impact on his people.
  • Through 3 different collisions, I collided with the creator of My Little PonyÒ.  Sid Good is a terrific guy, fellow alum, makes me laugh a lot and together we’re working on some interesting ways to transform our region (and he’s going to BIF7!).

What do these have in common? In each of these, the collision caused a big change of momentum, an exchange of energy to say the least.  Something ‘new’ came from each of these: relationships, kids, ways to work, corporate cultures, products, and ways to collaborate.  The sum of the parts is indeed greater than the parts. The Collision formed new ‘stuff’ – intangible and tangible.  It’s not just about running into someone and having a nice chat; it’s about running into someone that creates enough energy to create more energy and more collisions.  That’s what is so exciting and energizing.  When you meet someone and create something together, isn’t that just amazing? It’s almost hard to express how profound it can be. This has, blessedly, been the story of my life at many levels, so I’m a little enthusiastic.  The power of the collisions’ outcomes can create solutions to wicked problems, can change ghettos into urban neighborhoods, can transform a stagnant corporation into a living company, can create vaccines for horrid diseases, and can change just one life.

So, my usual question – what collisions have been transformative for you? How did they happen? What new ‘thing’ came from them? Where will your next collision come from? Please continue to share your Randoms and Collisions in the comments, on twitter, or to me!  #RCUS on!

Serendipitous Innovation

As I’ve been getting ready for my ‘sabbatical’ and BIF-7, the role of serendipity has been top of mind.  Serendipity is a hot topic, especially its role in innovation. One of the best reads isJohn Hagel & John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull.

Serendipity is loosely defined as a “happy accident”.  Horace Walpole created the word in a letter to Horace Mann on January 28, 1754 stating, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.”  The word is based on a Persian fairy tale from the 14th century titled The Three Princes of Serendip “whose heroes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” [1] Serendip is the old name for Ceylon now known as Sri Lanka.  It stems from the Arabic Sarandib originating from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa that translates to “Dwelling Place of Lions Island” (source: Wikipedia).  Even the origin of the word is serendipitous!

The cycle of serendipity (or not) came to me while having coffee yesterday with Valdis Krebs: “what you know depends a lot on who you know which depends a lot on what you know which depends a lot on who you know”…iteratively.  If you stay within those confines, your network remains fairly constant and self-selected.  Your chances of learning something new, of encountering ‘happy accidents’ is reduced, perhaps not zero, but not high.  It’s when you venture outside of that circle that your network, and knowledge, starts to expand - you ‘know’ more people so you ‘learn’ more which leads to knowing more people and on and on.

As I reflect upon how I know what I know, almost all of that knowledge & network has been serendipitous - Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS), to quote Saul Kaplan.   Let’s look at Random (and then examine the other words over the next few weeks before BIF-7).  The OED defines Random as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.”  Originating in the 14th Century with an unclear origin, it meant impetuosity, sudden speed, violence.  In the mid 17th Century, it took on the meaning of haphazard, from the Old French randon (v. randir “run impetuously, fast”) from the Frankish rant “running” from the prehistoric German randa.  But here’s where I think it gets very interesting.  Originally, randa meant ‘edge’ – which lead the English rand, an obsolete term for ‘edge’ (now the South African currency).[2]

It is this last, or very very early, meaning of ‘edge’ that intrigues me.  Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, comes from the edges, from the fringes.  So, for the next week or so, just try to put yourself in Random situations – situations that are not planned, not directed and even perhaps at the edge of your usual business or personal world and see what happens.  If you’re willing, please share in the comments or here.

p.s. I am a bit enamored with the entomology of words – it shows the flow and evolution of language which means of people, of societies, of commerce (words moving from Sanskrit to Arabic, from German to French to English, etc.), of culture…of our own past and future.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity

[2] http://www.word-origins.com/definition/random.html

Paradox of Innovation and Status Quo

As much as I love change, innovation, #RCUS (Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects per Saul Kaplan) and challenging the Status Quo, I realized how much the comfort and haven of some Status Quo means to me as we got settled at our place in Maine.  The familiar faces in our little grocery store and post office, seeing long-time friends, the same lobster boats and buoys in the harbour provide a sense of calm, certainty, stability that, paradoxically, frees me to challenge, change, and innovate.

Yet there is still constant change.  In Maine, it's in the water.  Several years ago, an old lobsterman had the most elaborate buoys: stripe of red, stripe of white, stripe of red with something different painted in the stripe of white every year such as a buoy, a lobster, and after 9/11, the American Flag. Our kids got one of his buoys every year.   One year, there were about half the number of his buoys in the bay.  When we saw him at the Co-Op, he informed us his wife had died that winter and he just wasn't up to it.  He looked frail.  The next year, his boat wasn't in the harbour and there were no buoys.  He had died that winter.  There were new boats and buoys in the harbour.  Death and renewal.

What does this have to do with innovation, business, anything? I think a lot on (at least) two levels:

  1. While we have to embrace the increasing velocity of change and uncertainty for meaningful, effective innovation, change for change's sake is not the goal.   Sometimes the way it is now is really ok.  We need to discern the difference and continually re-evaluate.  Nothing stays totally the same forever.  While the islands, shoals, and hidden rocks are still there, their contours have changed, perhaps ever so slightly, due to the tides, the weather - due to just being there.
  2. We need to start looking for subtle changes and patterns that provide enormous opportunities.  Most non-locals here in Pemaquid probably don't even notice the changes in lobster boats and buoys - but they are significant indicators of shifts (and generations).  While boats and buoys are tangible, many times the patterns are in the intangibles, which is harder to perceive (and measure).

So, I leave you with two challenges as you go on your summer vacations, kids baseball and soccer games, walks down the halls at work, visits to plants, boarding planes, even daily commutes:

  1. Identify the constants in your life, your work, that are working well and that aren't. Do they need to be changed? Do they provide the stability that allows innovation or do they impede it?
  2. Look for subtle patterns and changes - especially in places you don't normally look and think about what opportunities can arise from these.

Please feel free to share your learnings with your fellow readers either through comments here or on twitter at @dscofield or email me