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Roberto Trotta: Reflections on the invisible

Written by
Roberto Trotta
Published date
02 April 2019

I found the first “Picturing the Invisible” network workshop incredibly stimulating: you don’t often get the opportunity to engage cross-disciplinarily with experts in as diverse areas as neuroscience, philosophy, forensic sciences, psychoanalysis, and to bring them together with ideas and work done in fine art, curatorial practices, architecture and art history.

Several unsuspected links emerged for me in the two days of talks and discussions in the beautiful and inspiring venue of the Sir John Soane Museum. I was struck by Roger Kneebone’s call to pay more attention to the “unnamed territories” of our practices. Roger spoke of the “stuff” that’s inside the human body and is usually ignored in medical education, but that occasionally becomes the focus of attention in an unexpected and crucial manner. I feel this has the potential of uncovering parallel practices across disciplines, including my own – astrophysics – where what constitutes unwanted background and what is the precious signal is often a matter of the scientific question being asked.

Ruth Morgan’s description of the key challenge of forensic science (the ability to detect traces and to correctly interpret the evidence) resonates with the current frontiers of cosmology, where our ability to collect and statistically interpret the huge amount of data from the universe is becoming the bottleneck to making progress on topics such as dark matter and dark energy.

I was excited to hear about progress in modelling cognition and perception in neuroscience in terms of a “Bayesian Brain” presented by Irene Tracey – a clear link with the statistical outlook many of us take to interpret and model data sets from the cosmos. The connection between the infinitely large of cosmology and the infinitely complex of our brain cannot be made more explicit than by pointing out, as Irene did, that the number of neurons in our brain is approximately equal to the number of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy (left) contains about the same number of stars as the human brain contains neurons (right).

Statistical analysis and the nature of knowledge was another thread across many talks, including Stephan Döring’s on new evidence-based approaches to change in psychoanalysis (especially the role played by non-visual communication), Adam Gibson’s work in imaging of artefacts, and Ruth Morgan’s discussion on the challenges of communicating effectively probabilistic evidence in court.

I was also very interested in Paul Goodwin’s paper on the invisibility of black artists, and how some radical practices become institutionalized once cultural visibility becomes a currency. Paul Caldwell’s artistic practice, with his clever and subtle interventions, re-invent and give new visibility to everyday objects: what used to be invisible is brought to light and into the focus of attention by the artist’s work. Tanja Stähler highlighted that Heidegger thought of the invisible as “what is concealed… in such a way that it constitutes its meaning and ground”. It’s hard to think of a better definition for dark matter in cosmology!

I am very excited to have this opportunity to continue exploring the territories across our discipline. Among various common themes, a particularly promising one we identified is that of the language we use to describe our respective practices. I would like to better understand commonalities and divergences in this area, something that I greatly look forward to investigating further with this exceptional group of people.

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