Quarks to Quasars

Ink Wants to Form Neurons, and an Artful Scientist Obliges

1. The Secret of Shimmer

Dunn has been recently been playing with iridescence, adding more colors while still allowing the metals to shine. This painting of the cerebellar lobe is an example of his newer work.

Listening to him explain iridescence, you can see how his scientific background factors into his art: “[Iridescence] is when you have small crystalline patterns at the microscopic level which break up the incoming light and distribute it a different way, and so you get light coming into your eye from different angles in just a planar surface,” he explains. Dunn gets his paintings to shimmer and change under different light with a special technique he developed—and which he keeps under his hat.

2. The Fractal Solution to the Universe

In his second year of neuroscience grad school, Greg Dunn was moonlighting with a different kind of experiment: blowing ink across pieces of paper. The neuron-like pattern it formed was instantly recognizable to him as a neuroscientist. “Ink spreads because it wants to go in the direction of less resistance, and that’s probably also the case of when branches grow or neurons grow,” he says. “The reason the technique works really well is because it’s directly related to how neurons are actually behaving.”

Dunn calls this the “fractal solution to the universe,” which he sees as the “fundamental beauty of nature.” He’s fascinated that this branching pattern holds true across orders of magnitude, whether that’s nanometers for neurons, centimeters for ink, or meters for a tree branch.

3. Asian-Inspired Art

The branching tree motif of Asian art is especially fitting for Dunn’s neuron paintings. Simplicity is key: “What I love about Asian art is that you boil away all the unnecessary crap, and you’re left with an expression of an idea that’s done with spontaneity and grace.” There is nothing extraneous here in this painting of two pyramidal cells, a type of neuron found in the cerebellum and hippocampus.

4. Artistic Creation, Scientific Method

Before he ever touches a brush, Dunn mocks up his paintings in Photoshop, setting the composition and color scheme. Paintings, like a set of experiments, must be planned through in advance. “If the silhouette isn’t great, that painting will never be great. You’ve got to build on a strong foundation,” he says. “That’s true of science as well.”

The curled structure depicted here is the hippocampus, one of the most-studied parts of the brain. It has an integral role in memory and spatial navigation. The famous patient HM, who’d had his hippocampus removed, was unable to form new memories.

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Posted on Saturday, 5 May
Tagged as: Art   Neurons   Science   Scientist Obliges   Science as art  
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