Harvard’s Biovions vs. Sandra Bullock’s Gravity: Should We Use Art to Teach Science?






If you haven’t seen the mesmerizing video, “The Inner Life of the Cell” produced by Harvard University in 2007, take a moment to watch it below. The video is fascinating. With beautifully choreographed animation, the stunning visuals and music will captivate any audience. The video makes science not only enchanting, but approachable. If you didn’t feel like you knew how cells lived and worked before, watching this video would put you right in the cells’ world and teach you first hand.

Harvard University has used this video to teach undergraduate and medical students about cell biology. On their website, the creators of the Biovisions project (which produces a series of these animations) claim to have created the videos with pedagogy (the science of teaching, or teaching philosophy) in mind and they tout, proudly: “to see is to begin to understand…. Each decision made on how to represent a given biological process also includes consideration of how best to visually communicate particular aspects of the process.”

Perhaps no surprise, the videos produced by the Biovisions project have won several awards. They are, after all, wonderfully designed and executed. What is remarkable, though, is that they are being widely praised within academic circles. And the fact that they are being used by Harvard University’s medical school and biology curriculum is nothing short of astounding.

Why am I so amazed? Because for literally centuries, science and art have been at odds with each other. Overt and prescriptive use of art to teach science hasn’t been an accepted practice for nearly half a millennium. Dating back to some of the early empiricists in the 16th century, science in America (and elsewhere) has been tied to a Western knowledge paradigm framed by the Royal Society of London and famous thinkers like Francis Bacon and John Locke: we believe in rigorous experimental science, where scientific method and hard data are viewed as superior knowledge (superior, that is, to other kinds of knowledge, like literary understanding, metaphorical thought, spirituality, emotions, and so forth).  To the world of science, art has more or less been viewed as a diversion, an entertainment, but not as anything we would dare claim as accurate. Science has made great efforts to teach and practice its trade through method, process, and statistical data. Art, rhetoric, and communication in general have been widely viewed as the detractors from accuracy and sound science.

In the Biovions videos, we see very realistic, albeit artistically rendered, animations that are intended to represent—to mimic—the life of a cell. Biovions claims, after all, to use “rigorous scientific models of how biological processes occur” within their animations. These videos are being used to give students a frame of reference, a foundational understanding for how cells actually work. The question is, where does entertainment and captivation cross over with empirical evidence? Is the music, grace, and flow of the video really representative of cellular biology or is it tainting, even if to some small degree, the way future scientists are perceiving foundational science?

Recently, Warner Brothers launched an equally mesmerizing film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock: Gravity. If you haven’t seen it, you should. And you should see it in an IMAX. The film is a mesmerizing, stunning visual masterpiece of the cosmos, an epic cinematographic accomplishment.

Scientists and space pundits, however, have complained that the film isn’t scientifically accurate, that objects and people don’t respond in space the way that they do in the movie. They also complained about actual distances of space stations and the time it takes to travel in space compared to what is seen in the movie.

For movie enthusiasts like myself, the pundits’ complaints are silly. One of the primary purposes of cinema, after all, is to emotionally entrench us, to captivate us through spectacular effects. In cinema, we expect reality to be suspended. Besides, Gravity was never advertised as a documentary. It wasn’t intended to be used by NASA to teach astronauts, and it wasn’t created as a pedagogical tool.

The Inner Life of the Cell,” on the other hand, despite its artistic liberty and creative wonder, has been circulated as an instructional video, much unlike the entertainment-driven Gravity.

That isn’t to say that videos like “The Inner Life of the Cell” can’t be instructive. But it is at least worth recognizing that what we have on our hands here is a fairly large paradigm shift in the way we might be approaching scientific education. If there is value in teaching science through art, how do we differentiate between what we see in Gravity and what we see coming from Biovions?