Science and art

Several weeks ago I was at the International Society of Behavioral Ecology’s meeting, and they had a very special event: actress Isabella Rossellini did a Q&A during a showing of her recent short film, Mammas! She is not only an actress, but also a graduate student in Animal Behavior and Conservation at Hunter College in New York City. She has produced several film series about animals, including Green Porno and Seduce Me, in addition to Mammas. These films are delightful–they accurately represent animal behaviors and mating systems with wit and humor. If you haven’t seen them, definitely check them out! Mammas is about parental care in animals, Green Porno is about strange mating behaviors, and Seduce Me describes mate choice and courtship in a variety of species.

One of the really interesting points brought up by the Q&A is how art has the opportunity to discuss potentially controversial topics in science in a way that is acceptable, and how art may actually be able to serve as an educational tool. In Mammas!, Isabella Rossellini depicts animal behaviors by dressing up as the animals and then doing what they do. Bookending these entertaining displays are short scenes of her portraying human mothers, wishing they were in the situation of the animal being described. This format does a fantastic job of humanizing the animals (making them more relatable) without anthropomorphizing them. Importantly, the information is delivered in such a way that the audience learns without feeling lectured or patronized, and the videos can be really funny. This approach to delivering science information–matter-of-fact but with humor–is a great way to educate the public about science.

Often art and science are thought of as incredibly separate–almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of departments or majors at universities and colleges. However, Isabella Rossellini has clearly demonstrated that the two disciplines can actually be complementary. Science can inspire art, and art can inspire science educators to utilize non-conventional teaching methods and styles. Isabella Rossellini’s films also bring up an important reminder to us researchers, who can be focused on incredibly specific topics, that getting bogged down in details is not necessarily the best for educating and garnering support from the broader public. Although the Mammas films are accurate, there are some small details that are not exactly scientifically correct. But the films deliver the spirit and overall interpretation of the body of research supporting the our knowledge of the behaviors, which was the ultimate goal. If the films had depicted the level of detail that researchers require for their work, the films would likely lose some of their spark and would not be as engaging to the broader audience. Ultimately, it seems that science and art can complement each other in many ways, and I only wish there were more examples of the two working together!