D.L. Marrin, Author/Coordinator

Mara Haseltine, Pamela Longobardi, and Carlos Mora, Advisors/Reviewers


The technical and societal challenges we face at the dawn of the 21st century will likely require not only the continued development of 20th century technologies, strategies, and educational approaches, but also more fundamental shifts in the way that we perceive and relate to our world.  Artists/designers and scientists/engineers are uniquely positioned via their respective training and creativities to enhance our view of the world in different, but complementary, ways.  A virtual symposium held in November 2011 brought together professionals from diverse fields working with the oceans or water, which is often considered today’s most critical resource.  Interactions and presentations highlighted opportunities and challenges, which included [1] developing a common language (verbal, visual, mathematical, auditory, etc.) for communicating across disciplines, [2] utilizing art or artistic portrayals to describe, investigate and preserve nature, [3] incorporating scientific perspectives into the creations of artists and designers who reach people in innovative ways, and [4] expanding the knowledge of and feeling for nature through diverse expressions.  A subset of these opportunities and challenges is addressed in this paper.


The interaction between science/engineering and art/design (SEAD) can extend far beyond the former providing novel technologies for latter or the latter providing clever ways to portray the former.  Long-standing arguments as to whether artists can accurately portray the intricacies of scientific theories, which themselves are continually revised, or whether scientists can recognize the nuances and meanings of artistic works may not be the salient issues.  Instead, the combined perspectives of artists and scientists that arise from fundamentally different ways of observing, interpreting, and describing the world may provide each other and all people with unique ways of viewing the natural world and approaching the challenges associated with it.  Many significant breakthroughs in the arts, sciences, and design/engineering fields have resulted, not from the modification of standard or accepted views, but from fundamentally different ways of perceiving the world—whether through the senses or intellect. Artists/designers and scientists/engineers are uniquely positioned via their respective training, discoveries, and creativities to view the world in different and mutually beneficial ways.

Although art and science were closely linked during the time of Galileo and Leonardo, post-18th century trends have defined art, design, engineering, and science as separate professions (Kemp 2010).  Distinguishing artistic images from rigorous mathematical descriptions of the natural world has resulted in less and less interaction among the two groups.  In addition to an increasing specialization among most scientists and an “art for the sake of art” philosophy among some artists during the postmodern era, both the jargon and tools employed by scientists and artists in performing and presenting their respective work seem to have become more distinct, arcane, and mutually irrelevant.  There is recent optimism among art-science enthusiasts that the expanding realm of digital media, including the international open-source movement, could assist them in addressing the issue of separate tools (Wilson 2010).  However, a shared computer literacy alone is unlikely to bridge the profession-specific jargon gap between scientists and artists.


Devising new words or altering/expanding the meaning of existing ones to somehow create a verbal or written language that is common to both artists and scientists would be difficult given the breadth of topics required to be addressed.  In his book entitled The Artful Universe (1995), John Barrow examines the origins of our sense of beauty, order, and other aesthetics in light of the underlying spatial and temporal patterns of the physical world. In fact, we humans embody many of the same patterns (at least on a physical level) as those we perceive and appreciate (either consciously or unconsciously) in the world around us. Martin Kemp’s book Seen/Unseen (2006) discusses in detail the ways in which major scientific theories throughout history have been influenced by visualization and the ability of scientists to both create visual models and to take inspiration from images they encounter.  And vision is not the only sensory mode from which scientists have gained insight and inspiration for their theories.  Auditory cues from both nature and music have also served as inspiration for scientific breakthroughs and for insightful perspectives on natural phenomena over a range of spatial and temporal scales.

Art has been described in terms of pattern and rhythm as a combination of elements repeated in a predictable and variable manner, respectively.  Similarly, musicians use repeated elements that vary in their predictably and, thus, produce a balance of expected and unexpected elements for listeners who find the compositions aesthetically pleasing (Levitin et al. 2012).  Although only certain branches of science specifically focus on patterns, rhythms, and repetition, data from a wide range of natural phenomena and scientific fields can be expressed in terms of vibrations, cycles, frequencies, and other descriptors of rhythm, as well as distributions, geometries, shapes, and similar descriptors of pattern (Ball 1999).  Design and mathematical aspects of engineering are amenable to representation by patterns and rhythms, which are specifically integrated into the final systems and products.  Generally regarded as the fundamental language of both science and engineering, mathematics is commonly linked to rhythmic sounds and movements that have been used to teach school children otherwise abstract subjects such as arithmetic (Alton 1998).

Is there something universal about the geometries, cycles, symmetry, balance, and repeated patterns in nature that artists and musicians incorporate into their works and compositions and that scientists and engineers reveal in their theories and complex mathematics?  And what underlies the perception of beauty, perfection, or resonance in art and science?  These are not just ethereal questions, but instead may point to factors that provide the impetus for the kinds of scientific and artistic breakthroughs that could allow us to more efficiently address today’s challenges and to more effectively communicate the essence of those challenges to others.  Whereas the answers to these questions remain a mystery, there are an astonishing number of physical, social, and related systems that can be described by fractal relationships, 1/f structures, and hierarchical designs (Chen 2011).  Fractals suggest underlying spatial and temporal patterns that often appear random or disordered at first glance, but are represented in everything from music and art to landscapes and heartbeats.  Is our perception of beauty, whether inherent in a piece of music or a photograph of a glacier, related to an underlying fractal-like hierarchy that resonates to something within us and to everything around us?

When the topic of communication among professionals in different fields is raised, it is often assumed that words or numbers represent the best candidates for constructing or distilling a common language; but this may not be the case. It may be that pattern and rhythm represent better candidates simply because they are more universal.  Whereas the existence of rhythm and pattern within disciplines as diverse as science, engineering, art, and design has been recognized for centuries, communicating about or presenting scientific and artistic works in a language that specifically facilitates interactions between artists and scientists is of more recent interest.  The OpenLab at U.C. Santa Cruz is a good example of a research facility focused on communication between scientists and artists to the benefit of both (


The idea that pattern or rhythm could, in and of itself, represent a form of communication or language among scientists, artists, and designers is certainly not a new one.  The British architect Christopher Alexander (1977) wrote about a pattern language consisting of a hierarchy of parts, or design components, that are linked together by patterns capable of addressing and solving problems associated with each of its parts. The patterns themselves can be scaled up or down, creating what might be termed a fractal-like network and revealing information on higher hierarchical levels that is not present on lower ones.  The patterns, which express the possible relationships among parts, consist of rules that work equally well for the natural and architectural (designed) worlds.  It is the link among parts that permits the pattern to serve as a language.

Expanding on Alexander’s ideas, Nikos Salingaros (2000) explains that pattern languages assist in addressing the complexity inherent in a wide range of natural and human-designed systems. He also describes how to develop and validate pattern languages for different systems so that they can adapt to or change our environment. This ability is particularly germane to the present discussion because pattern language is a way of connecting designs to human beings and, in turn, devising solutions. Although patterns are distinct from scientific theories in their being derived from observations, rather than from first principles, they do provide a basis from which scientific theories can emerge and most natural phenomena can be described (Salingaros 2000).  Pattern language is directly applicable to wide variety of natural systems that are described by complex networks composed of individual components or nodes, which connect and disconnect to one another according to a set of rules, or laws, in determining a system’s self-organizing behavior.

The theory that both chaos and geometric order are required to produce quality architectural designs, many of which unfold in an unpredictable manner, is based on the way that individual patterns are added during the design process (Rubinowicz 2000).  By the same token, geometric and pattern languages have been devised for music, permitting both rhythm and pitch to be described as transformations of sets of points or nodes (Meredith 2012).  Whereas music is often considered the realm of human artists, at least one researcher has hypothesized that non-human organisms use rhythm based communication, which relies on the synchronization of biological rhythms among two organisms such that predictable time windows are established for sending and receiving signals (Beamish 2010).

The physical, chemical, and biological worlds are replete with examples of systems describable by patterns, rhythms, and fractal-like relationships evident on scales ranging from the atomic to the cosmic. Even scientific data that are not specifically presented in terms of patterns, rhythms or hierarchical relationships can often be perceived or interpreted in those terms or, at the very least, compared and contrasted with studies that do include such data (Marrin 2012).


The following applications were drawn from a recent symposium that brought together scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and designers ( The participants shared their work with water and the oceans, showcasing a variety of approaches and challenges to combining technical and artistic pursuits in an attempt to either bring awareness to or develop practical solutions for water-related challenges.  Many of these pursuits capitalize on the patterns or rhythms that are common to both the arts and sciences.

Linking Nature to Human Emotion and Education. Filmmaker Carlos Mora captures water’s rhythms, movements, and resulting patterns in natural settings and encourages a “culture of water” whereby artists, designers, scientists, and all interested people share their views and experiences.  He has created an online forum that permits people to communicate about water using different modalities while adhering to common themes, thus facilitating a multimedia conversation from which common elements can be recognized and a link between seemingly dissimilar descriptions or perceptions of water can be made (

Using Art to Focus Attention on Environmental Challenges.  Artist and professor Pamela Longobardi has spent time documenting and cleaning up plastic wastes that are carried by ocean currents to coastlines throughout the world.  Her Drifters Project focuses on global-scale patterns created by the oceanic transport of plastics and smaller-scale patterns of plastic wastes that are distributed along beaches (  One facet of her art involves the use of selected plastic wastes to produce installations and exhibits on an even smaller scale that symbolically focus attention on the destructive fabrication and use of plastics (Longobardi 2010).  Possessing a scientific background, she approaches each new site as a forensic researcher.

Creating Functional Art across Spatial Scales.  Artist and professor Mara Haseltine has created artificial reefs and other underwater habitats based on the geometry, patterning, and functionality of natural reefs and on scaling-up microscopic structures in nature to facilitate the reintroduction of marine organisms. In addition to the structure of her reefs, she has experimented with various materials (e.g., glass, metal, porcelain) in order to provide optimal substrates for the colonization of marine organisms (Haseltine 2013).  Particularly interesting is her use of nature’s microscopic structures and patterns to create macroscopic designs (  Her artwork incorporates geometries and patterns that serve valuable scientific/engineering purposes and that unite cultural and biological evolution through a practice known as “geotherapy.”

Integrating Art, Design, and Engineering.  Landscape architect Greg Shinn has mediated among artists, engineers, designers, and regulators in conjunction with projects where artists are asked to explain, rather than to produce, their work under an unfamiliar set of guidelines. The challenge of translating the artist’s intuitive vision into the engineer’s practical work is one that requires a mediator who can express and understand visions in multiple languages, whether they are verbal, graphical, intuitive, mathematical, or otherwise.  Emulating the methods of such translators is potentially valuable for facilitating communication among technical professionals and artists whose work must be integrated into multifaceted projects.

Choreographing Dance to Nature’s Rhythm.  Dance director Kimi Eisele choreographs various performances that experientially link audiences to local environmental issues, with the goal of changing the perceptions and behaviors of people through movement.  Based upon the natural rhythm of water’s movement and of humans’ interacting with water, audiences are given the opportunity to perceive local water challenges differently. She connects human physicality and feeling to an awareness of environmental problems and solutions (


In addition to the challenge of communication among scientists/engineers and artists/designers, style, culture, and value differences among the two groups have also been identified as potential hurdles to collaboration (Mitchell et al. 2003).  Nonetheless, communication or language barriers may represent the most formidable of those mentioned and could inhibit SEAD collaborations that might otherwise yield new perspectives for addressing environmental challenges and more effectively relating those challenges to the public. The suggested actions in this white paper focus on increasing the potential for art-science collaborations by emphasizing elements that are common (and perhaps fundamental) to both and, at the same time, bypassing the esoteric words, descriptions, and symbols that often separate their respective cultures and styles.


Environmental Activist/Conservation Groups

 [1] Approach the natural world (e.g., water, air, land) not only as problematic issues, but also as a model for solutions that can assist in balancing relationships among human interests.  Messages incorporating an underlying pattern or rhythm that appeals to everyone are unifying, rather than divisive.  Explore using the subtle messages of art or music, as well as the more overt messages of statistics and scientific predictions, in reaching a wider range of audiences.

[2] Organize environmental cleanups such that participants observe the spatial distribution and temporal appearance of debris as a means of interpreting where it may have originated, how and when it may have been transported, and how the environment has altered it.  When appealing to audiences, experiment with ways in which pollution or ecosystem degradation can be identified with patterns or rhythms that are different from those of more pristine environments.

Educators and Educational Institutions

[3] Utilize the tools of rhythm and pattern to teach elementary and high school subjects such as mathematics and science, rendering these subjects less abstract to students.  Devise college-level courses that emphasize underlying patterns, rhythms, and fractal-like relationships from both the science/engineering and art/design fields as a means of encouraging students to identify common themes or components and to express those commonalities as a balanced view of nature.

[4] Establish cross-disciplinary courses that examine and compare methodologies employed by artists and scientists in investigating, portraying, and experimenting with the natural world.  Emphasize how the tools and intentions of scientists/engineers can assist artists/designers in their work, and vice-versa.  An example of this type of cross-disciplinary course may be found at the website http//

Professional Organizations and Organizers

[5] Arrange formal links among organizations representing SEAD professionals in order to plan joint meetings and to sponsor virtual or face-to-face forums where the focus is interdisciplinary communication and development of a common language leading to permanent relationships.  Recognize that seemingly unrelated viewpoints on various topics, as well as understandings drawn from different fields, when communicated through a common language such as pattern and rhythm, can yield transformational insights or perceptual shifts in science, art, and design.

Government Planning/Regulatory Agencies

[6] Consult a range of professionals early in decision-making processes and consider the use of mediators who are conversant in the languages of SEAD participants, as well as regulations or planning requirements. Seek out professionals from relevant fields and institutions interested in forging a relationship between scientists/engineers and artists/designers.  Suggest the use of pattern, rhythm, and hierarchical relationships as a way to enhance the communication among SEAD professionals and to demonstrate how understanding processes or devising solutions at one level of management may be scaled up or down to other levels.

Public and Private Funding Institutions

[7] Support projects that present or reanalyze scientific results and engineering specifications in terms of pattern, rhythm, fractal-like structures, hierarchies, or other common elements that can be more easily translated into or from artistic and design works.  Add a funding category to support artists who produce designs that are based on their interpretation of natural structures or cycles and that are directly applicable to scientific or engineering projects in addressing real-world challenges.  Support the expansion of media and technologies that foster communication among professionals via a common language and offer didactic perceptions of the natural world and our challenges with it.


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DL‘West’ Marrin, Water Sciences & Insights (USA) and Fundación Somos Agua (México)

Mara Haseltine, Geotherapy Art Institute and The New School (USA)

Pamela Longobardi, Georgia State University (USA)

Carlos Mora-Gomez, Fundación Somos Agua (México)