Science for art's sake

Science - Georgina Ferry on the art of sound and light

Can you see noise? According to the 19th-century singer and devout Congregationalist Margaret Watts Hughes, there was a way of permanently visualising vocal qualities. In 1885, she stretched an elastic membrane across the bell of a speaking-trumpet (a device she named the "eidophone"). Then, while someone sang or spoke into the trumpet, she drew the vibrating membrane away from a glass plate covered with watercolour paint. The resulting patterns in the paint are not random, but form geometric shapes, shell-like multiple curves or images suggestive of organic growth.

Watts published her pictures, which she called "voice figures", in two books published in 1891 and 1904. Some of them now form part of an exhibition, "n01se", currently running at several museums in Cambridge. Watts herself seems to have regarded the figures as principally of scientific or musical interest, rather than works of art. But the exhibition as a whole draws no such distinction. Ostensibly about "information and transformation", it thrusts together an extraordinary variety of works linked only by the questions they raise about human perception of sound and light, and how we give these sensations meaning.

At first glance, "n01se" looks like another shotgun marriage between art and science of the kind that well- meaning bodies have attempted frequently in recent years in an effort to bridge the "two cultures" and give science a more acceptable face. Melvyn Bragg goes out of his way to welcome scientists to his cultural discussions on radio (although Jeremy Paxman still treats them like Martians). The Wellcome Trust (Britain's leading funder of biomedical research) runs a competitive programme of awards for collaborations between artists and scientists that promote the public understanding of science. Sometimes the result is remarkably successful, but there is still a sense that art is giving science a helping hand in an area - public communication - in which it struggles if left to itself.

But this is something different. The science in this exhibition stands up for itself, while the artists both embrace scientific ideas as valid subjects for artistic exploration and extend the use of scientific technologies to create new sensory experiences. Some of these pieces were not originally intended to serve an artistic function. The steel model of DNA built by James Watson and Francis Crick was designed to solve the problem of how a simple biological molecule can encode the information needed to build a complex organism: yet the double helix has become a "cultural icon". A strip of film from a bubble chamber, set up to record the emission of elementary particles, is spoilt by an electrical discharge exposing the film: yet the image of the spark - "noise" obscuring the fainter signal - is itself an object of beauty.

The creators of other works in the exhibition may have been surprised to find them presented as "information" rather than art. A focus on the contemporary love affair with digital communication - sound and light purified down to a series of 0s and 1s - has inspired in the curators a search for historical antecedents to this approach. In the mid-17th century, the engraver Claude Mellan produced the face of Christ in his Veil of St Veronica using a single, continuous black line on a white ground, beginning at the tip of the nose and spiralling outwards. He created all the features simply by varying the thickness and direction of the line. Today, aboriginal painters in the Australian desert (such as Gracie Ngale Morton) use intricate arrangements of white dots on darker backgrounds to represent their familiar environment, with meanings that are sometimes apparent, sometimes obscure, to western eyes.

With modern digital technology, you can clean up a distorted or noisy signal to produce sound or image of transcendent purity. Some of the most thought-provoking exhibits are the result of artists seizing the opportunity to represent objects to a degree of fidelity that goes beyond mere truth. Tom van Sant's World Without Clouds is a photograph showing the entire globe laid out like a particularly fine contour map in an atlas, cloud-free. It was composed of millions of images taken from NASA earth observation satellites, recombined, smoothed and sharpened to produce a perfect (but false) image of the earth. At the other end of the scale, Giles Revell uses an electron microscope - another scientist's tool - to photograph a woodlouse, section by section, before reassembling a greatly magnified image of breathtaking definition and beauty.

There is wit here, too, in Manuel Franquelo's chorus of electronic circuits intoning randomly composed sentences, which are then transmitted in Morse code to bemused visitors in another museum half a mile away. And there is an on-going experiment in philosophy and computer science, "Talking Heads", in which computer-based "agents" try to develop a shared language to describe objects through interaction with one another.

Many contemporary exhibitions require no more from the visitor than a perceptual and emotional response. Treating a theme that overlaps with that of "n01se", "Audible Light" at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford places a single installation in each of six large, white-walled rooms. The eight international artists who collaborated on the project use electrically generated sound in conjunction with a small number of simple, low-tech objects to provide different "synaesthetic experiences" in the viewer. Content is minimal: we are not asked to think about how the sounds are generated, but simply to reflect on how they augment our experience of the visual and physical space.

Devised by the artist Adam Lowe and the historian of science Simon Schaffer, "n01se" carries such a rich cargo of content that the experience is as much intellectual as aesthetic. There is no attempt to oversimplify or trivialise, yet the focus on information and communication also avoids alienating the less scientifically literate. If science is to be welcomed back into the fold of contemporary culture, then this is surely a bold step in the right direction.

Georgina Ferry is a freelance science writer and author of "Dorothy Hodgkin: a life" (Granta Books, 1998)

"n01se" is a series of exhibitions at Kettle's Yard, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Fitzwilliam Museum, all in Cambridge, until 26 March. A further exhibition is at the Wellcome Trust's Two10 Gallery in Euston Road, London, until 1 May

"Audible Light" is at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, until 19 March