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Two Artists Combine Art, 
Science, and Skepticism

Special Report

Russ Dobler

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.4, July/August 2016

“Much of my work has been about what we see, what we don’t see, and what we think we see,” says Ellen Levy, artist and cocreator of the “Some Provocations from Skeptical Inquirers” art exhibit in New York City. Decades ago, when Levy’s zoology degree got her a microbiology job to fund her art, the now debunked cellular feature dubbed the “mesosome” was still widely accepted as real. Mesosomes were observed as folds in the plasma membranes of bacteria and thought to serve a function in cell replication. In the late 1970s, mesosomes were revealed to be artifacts of how cells were prepared for microscopy—specifically the chemical fixation process—when researchers realized they did not appear in cells that hadn’t been fixed.

“Migrations”

“People could get the same results over and over again, but it didn’t really mean anything,” Levy says. Levy sprinkles some other bygone concepts such as “phlogiston” and the “luminiferous aether” into her animation “Anomalies and Artifacts.” They are depicted alongside genuine cell organelles, but not to lend legitimacy to those discarded missteps.

“You see the attempt to distinguish signal and noise, and how difficult it is,” Levy says.

Patricia Olynyk, the exhibit’s 
other cocreator and director of the Graduate School of Art at Washington University in St. Louis, says her father giving microscopes as gifts is largely responsible for her “acute interest in science.” It’s been part of her profession, too. The School of Art and Design position she accepted at the University of Michigan in 1999 quickly became a joint appointment with the college’s Life Sciences Institute, one of the first such overlaps in the country. Olynyk’s “The Mutable Archive” tackles the topic of physiognomy, as addressed in the November/December 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

“The physiognomists were trying to ascribe personality traits to skull shapes,” Olynyk says, “so they were using craniometers to measure the micro- and macrofeatures of the face, and based on the relative disproportion of that, [to] ascribe a personality type.” Olynyk is fascinated that despite physiognomy being soundly disproved, “there’s still a scientific desire to image personality,” whether through fMRI or a Geodesic Sensor Net, which measures the brain’s electrical activity.

The numbered circles in “Sce­nario Thinking,” which features the cover of the November/December 2012 Skeptical Inquirer (and two other SI covers as well) correspond to the individual electrodes of the Geodesic Sensor Net. Olynyk says she and Levy chose the other two covers in the piece for contrast.

“We thought the mapping of the brain, with the monsters and aliens, with the celebrity scientists was really a kind of kooky and wonderful balance,” Olynyk says. “Of course, the aesthetic of the work is paramount.”

Russ Dobler

Russ Dobler is a geophysicist, journalist, and member of the New York City Skeptics. He writes about the intersection of science, skepticism, and pop culture for the websites Adventures in Poor Taste! and the pulp press. You can follow him on Twitter @russdobler46 for more on those topics or to find out what beer he’s been drinking lately.