News Archive

President's Letter: Art and Science, Achieving More Together

June 16, 2020

Editor's Note: Sonya T. Smith will become president of Sigma Xi on July 1, 2020. The following letter was published in the July-August 2020 issue of  American Scientist.
As I write this first letter as president of Sigma Xi, we are amid stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope you and your families are safe. As this issue of American Scientist  goes to press, Sigma Xi has just announced that the November 2020 Annual Meeting will be held virtually. I hope you will fully participate in this new format.

I chose the theme for our 2020 Annual Meeting, Hacking the Brain: The Intersection of Art and Neuroscience, due to my love of art, music, and dance, as well as connections to my own research. My interest began when I learned about the work of 17th century naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian while volunteering as a docent at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). Merian decided to leave her home in Amsterdam and set sail for Suriname. While there, she studied the plant and insect life of the area and published a book on the subject. Merian used her artisanship to help others visualize her research; she made the copper plate engravings for the book’s illustrations, which are on display at NMWA.

There are clearly many more discoveries to be found at the intersection of art and science. For example, there is a rich body of research investigating the influence of music and sound on the brain. The whispering gallery effect  is an architectural phenomenon that takes advantage of the concave curvature of walls within a space to enhance sound transmission. If one whispers into a section of the wall, someone else standing hundreds of feet away can hear the whisperer as clearly as if spoken directly to them. Hearing research by Richard Chadwick at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders demonstrates that the cochlea improves upon the whispering gallery effect  by focusing wave energy at its apex, where low frequencies are processed. The lower frequency sound waves (the whisperers) use this architectural effect of the spiral cochlear wall to transmit their signals to the brain.

Replicating the fluidity of human movement presents a significant challenge in robotics. Forward-thinking programs in the area of design and robotics have collaborated with dancers and choreographers to address this problem. The Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign applies the agility of dance to robotics. The RAD lab has developed control algorithms for expressive robotic systems to improve robot performance in non-rote tasks.

More interdisciplinary discoveries are outlined in the articles in this issue of American Scientist. I look forward to serving you as president of Sigma Xi.

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Sonya T. Smith