PhD Thesis Visualising ESL

Visualising the PhD journey: once you start looking for metaphors…

A little heads up on a current (soon to be revealed) WIP: I’m visualising the PhD journey using digital paintings, maps and interactive story-telling. It’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to share it when it goes live. This means that I’ve been thinking about metaphors and ways of storytelling. And it turns out that once you start looking for visual metaphors, they turn up everywhere.

My own personal metaphor for undertaking the PhD was pretty mainstream, despite being invaluable. For those who don’t know, I’ve been climbing a mountain whilst doing the PhD. Passing the viva was effectively reaching the summit, but on the way were a whole bunch of added extras, from being caught in an avalanche (loss or illness), so taking shelter in a cave while storms raged (fighting my university for access and not feeling able to go on), to getting stuck in a swamp and totally lost (doubting that my work was valuable, relevant, or particularly insightful).

Whatever was happening in my life at the time, there was a convenient metaphor for it, and one that helped me put my problems into a tangible frame where I could appraise their significance (objectively), figure out a plan, and then refocus on my goals. I think this is why I found the metaphor so helpful, and why it was it one of the keys to me completing the PhD after 8 years of hard slog. Having that mountain in the distance meant that, regardless of what happened along the way, I never lost sight of my goals and was able to appreciate the storms for what they were; temporary blips that would not permanently interrupt my progress.

Sky: Children of the Light

While my forthcoming project is designed, painted and written by me as a visual representation of my metaphorical journey, I stumbled upon a different version of the metaphor… scrolling through the latest games on Apple’s App Store, I came across a game called “Sky: Children of the Light”. Here are some screen grabs from the App Store, mainly so that you get an idea of the beautiful artwork in this game.

The aim of the game is to get to the top of the dangerous and dark mountain (sound familiar?) and this is best achieved by working altruistically and making friendships (also familiar – no one ever finishes a PhD by working alone). The graphics are undeniably beautiful, and the challenges include decoding glyphs and meeting ancestors to gain their knowledge as you go along (also, very relevant for a PhD journey, although less literal when those ancestors are in book form in a library).

The blurb about the game states that “with your trusty candle, you’ll illuminate the world bit by bit, pushing back the darkness and igniting beacons to open doors to new areas”. This might be a little poetic, but is a comforting thought to those of us trying to develop new knowledge that might just make the world a better place, one day.

“You’ll meet dozens of ancestors who will teach you new expressions – like setting off a dazzling fireworks show – or offer items like capes, hairstyles and musical instruments”. While no one offered me a hairstyle throughout the PhD, learning from ancestors, mentors and peers is a central part of the process. Despite the journey being solitary and even lonely at times, the most valuable resources are the people around you – your cheerleaders.

“Although you can play Sky alone, the experience truly comes to life when you connect with friends, family or strangers. Can’t reach a hidden cliff? Signal to a passer-by who has a more powerful cape and perhaps they’ll take your hand and escort you up. The desire to help others is woven throughout the game’s fabric.” There have been many occasions when I’ve benefitted from the generosity of others in my field. Progress doesn’t happen through sheer slog in the library, but from friendships, kindness, and solidarity. And some beautiful metaphorical scenery.

Visualising ESL

The Art of Innovation (Part 1)

There’s currently a very interesting exhibition on at the Science Museum in London called “The Art of Innovation”. It’s about the links and dialogue between the (natural) sciences and the arts.

Given my interest in the dialogue between the social sciences and the arts (have a scroll through some of the other posts in this blog if you’re new), the first part of the exhibition was a little wide of the mark. The artistic side of the first few exhibits included architecture, dress-making and textiles.

However the real showstopper for me was a piece designed by Theodore Olivier in 1830 (see below) in the section on “Meaningful Matter”. These were built to convey complex 3-dimensional ideas to a wide audience. The coloured strings could be adjusted using weighted beads in the frame, meaning that different surface shapes could be modelled according to the mathematical equation at question, revealing a number of surfaces and shapes simultaneously. These frames and models were eventually produced in significant numbers and sold across the world. The one in the picture below was made by French company Fabre de Lagrange.

Exploring surfaces and mathematical equations in 3 dimensions

However, as ideas progressed, these models fell out of favour with the mathematical and scientific communities. After the First World War, the models were displayed in museums as curios where they found a new audience; avant grade artists. The string models represented not the abstract thinking of the original mathematical equations, but the ability to explore shape and form in a new way.

Among those who drew inspiration from these models were Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Hepworth modelled her sculpture on the mathematical models that she had seen at Oxford (see below).

Barbara Hepworth Sculpture inspired by mathematical equations
Barbara Hepworth sculpture inspired by mathematical equations

As a member of the St Ives set, it was therefore no surprise to see Hepworth joined on the opposite wall by a set of sketches by Henry Moore.

Sketches by Henry Moore
Henry Moore sketches inspired by equations

Moore’s sketches drew inspiration from the string recreations of maths equations that he encountered on display at the Science Museum when he was a student in the 1920s. Moore immediately recognised the structural and artistic possibilities the models presented, noting that “it wasn’t the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me”. The sketches on display in the exhibition eventually inspired several wooden string figures of his own.

There are similarities with some of the work I’ve been doing with zentangling interaction patterns, as you can see in my previous posts. I’ve also built 3 dimensional string models using the colours of strings to represent economic, legal and “other” aspects of each interaction, overlapping these to build complex patterns. Some of the questions I’ve been pondering are how models like these could help us explore complex patterns of interaction in the context of the social sciences? How could we visualise economic and legal aspects of interactions using colour to build up overarching patterns of interaction?

Stay tuned for more from the exhibition in Part 2….