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Looking Good – the value of beauty in science

Posted by on July 4, 2013

Guest blog by Anthony Lewis, MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, who discusses the importance of aesthetics to scientific research.

Myofibroblasts are stretchy cells that help to repair our organs – contracting to bring the edges of a wound together and then self-destructing like tiny dissolvable stiches.

Science is about hard, cold facts, right? Data laid out in black and white, the information speaks for itself, no frills or fancies needed. Who would want distracting colours, eye-catching graphics, and big photographs cluttering up our science? Well, I would, for one. A little bit of visual splendour goes a long way. Whether it’s a beautifully crafted graphic, a stunning microscope shot, or an arresting photograph, the right visual aid can transform science.

Within research the importance of data visualisation as a tool for grappling with huge unwieldy data sets is becoming increasingly clear. In journal papers, elegant figure design can convey in an instant what several hundred words of science-speak has failed to. And beautiful pictures can translate findings from the alien language of serious research science into something understandable and engaging.

We aim to harness this communicative power of great visuals at BPoD – Biomedical Picture of the Day. Gleefully indulging in the unending beauty of science, we try to unearth unappreciated images and the science stories they tell. We scour the latest biomedical journal publications for the gems that lurk within, and post one of these beautiful research images each day alongside a description aimed at the general public written by a professional science writer.

We, at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, set the site up in January 2012; what have we learnt since? That a great image has the power to draw anyone into the wonderful world of science. Take this typical comment from one Tumblr user:

“Not gonna lie, I read this because the picture looks really cool. Hahaha….=) But then it was kinda interesting, so it was worth my”

Look through the lols and smiley faces and you find someone who has engaged with a piece of primary research as a direct result of a single attractive image. In the constant struggle for attention, science can’t afford to dwell exclusively in a black and white realm of lifeless facts. Much in the spirit of the current Society of Biology Feeding Life photography competition, we need to appreciate the value and communicative power of beauty. Let science step out of the shadows and bask in the spotlight it so clearly deserves.

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