Cover Stories: Abstract Ideas

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Science  05 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6103, pp. 1
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6103.1

Cover stories offer a look at the story behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

The practice and understanding of science can require a good deal of abstract thinking, and sometimes it makes sense to extend this approach to our cover imagery. For example, this week's cover, for a special issue on the neuroscience of depression, features not something as clinical and concrete as neurons, brain scans, or medications, but a painting titled Midnight Stroll, by British artist Michael Bishop.

We wanted the cover image to set a mood, first and foremost, and to broadly represent depression without focusing on any one particular detail of the science. As a concept, though, depression can seem foreboding and grim. A balance was needed between the darkness often associated with depression and some hope for the effects of research on alleviating people’s distress, even though there is still a long way to go in fighting this disease.

This painting struck all the chords we were searching for: solemn, contemplative, bleak, but at the same time inviting and with a hint of optimism; abstract enough to cover a broad subject and given depth through a rich, warm color palette. Bishop agrees that the painting has potential resonance in depicting not only depression and loneliness but also hope. He painted Midnight Stroll in 2003 in London, but based it on memories of his years of living in New York in the 1990s. Looking back, he says, “I think the figure may represent the strangeness and isolation of being in a foreign country, which, in the context of [the] issue, [is] a good visual metaphor, along with the idea of the streetlights (Science) throwing light on the difficulties of the human condition.”

Embedded Image

Château Lamb label

CREDIT: Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron/DESY

Fun in the Abstract

Decisions about when to “go abstract” may depend on the content and are not made lightly. I do strive for our cover artwork to be as relevant as possible to the science it represents, and more often than not that means a tangible, concrete—while also visually striking—image. But there are times when the most effective way of communicating the message is with an abstract image. Sometimes, as with this week's special issue, that may be because the theme is broad; other times, it's because a concept is very complicated and can be made more accessible for a nonspecialist with an abstract illustration.

Suggestions for visual concepts can come from editors, staff, artists, or authors. In 2010, a conceptual cover idea was submitted by a group of authors in Europe who were publishing a new finding related to the Lamb shift (see 4 June 2010, p. 1248); a highly technical concept, but important enough to win the 1955 Nobel Prize in Physics. The authors of the paper had come up with a way of visually representing this rather enigmatic idea by using two nearly parallel mirrors and a bottle of wine, resulting in an endless cascade of reflections.

After some scientific vetting, it was decided that the authors would set up an official photo shoot to try and capture an image that would work for our cover. From across the Atlantic, I encouraged them to photograph objects other than just wine bottles. Bottles could be acceptable, but for such a photo to be used for a cover image, no recognizable commercial label should be visible. When the pictures came back from the shoot, I was initially disheartened to find a clearly readable label in every one. But looking closer, I realized the label read “Château Lamb.” The team had created the labels themselves just for the photographs. Who says physicists don’t have a sense of humor? All in all, it was one of the most enjoyable cover collaborations I have ever had.

Driven to Abstraction

As the accompanying slideshow illustrates, one of the ironies of taking an abstract route with our covers is that it can result in some surprisingly accessible imagery. Although it is a route we take sparingly, delving into the abstract can have a powerful effect.

—Yael Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Science

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