Written in the stars?

Essay read as part of Pint of Science 2018, Manchester. The talk was given as part of the ‘Creative Reactions’ series.Fig 1 assign 2How much of our lives are down to fate?

The moment we are born – according to astrology – places us under a particular star sign, which is said to determine certain character traits. I’m an Aries and so I’m apparently active, enterprising, courageous, proud, impatient and vain!

But, what else is determined at birth? Is our chance of developing cancer, for example, written in our DNA? Or the stars?

I began thinking about the juxtaposition of scientific fact and belief in fate during my Masters at the Manchester School of Art.

Part-way through my theory-based degree in Visual Culture, I was given the opportunity to complete a more practical module in ‘sci-art’.

I have always had an interest in science and I am keen to learn more about our world and understand how things work.

Being a collage maker I spend my artistic time bringing different elements together, and working on making them into some sort of ludicrous jigsaw – organising parts to try to come to a conclusive finished artwork. I feel this mimics the methods of a researcher who undergoes a process of experimentation and inevitable failure before coming to a successful answer. So I knew sci-art would be the perfect way to bring together my interest in science and my artistic practice.

Before embarking on my Masters, I had been involved with a large event called Science Uncovered whilst working part time as an Engagement Manager at Manchester Museum. The event brought together scientific researchers to present their work to the public in order to make science and their specific research more accessible.

There I’d met Research Engagement Manager for Cancer Research UK, Tim Hudson. He was not only organised – which helped me no end, when trying to manage the needs and requests of over 30 researchers – but was also incredibly upbeat and enthusiastic.

So a year later when I came to work on my sci-art project, Tim immediately came to mind. I wanted to work with scientists in as direct a way as possible, so that I could have genuine dialogue with a scientific expert. But I knew there might be barriers in getting access to academics when approaching them with a student art project (especially when one of my remits was – must like Monty Python animations). However, I thought Tim was the kind of person who would ‘get it’.

Not only that, but cancer research felt like the right subject for me to explore.

Coincidentally my Mum passed away from breast cancer when I was a teenager. She was a scientist herself. However, beyond knowing that she had cancer, I knew little else about what the disease actually was, or what Cancer Research UK did. I know I am not alone in this, and everyone has a story of someone they know who has unfortunately been diagnosed with or treated for cancer.

The sci-art module, my previous relationship with a Cancer Research UK contact, and the opportunity to learn more about a subject that affected me and so many others, seemed to be a perfect match. Perhaps it was fate.

When I contacted Tim, just as I suspected, he got it. And after an initial discussion, he paired me with his colleague Steve Bagley, Head of Advanced Imaging and Flow Cytometry at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute.

At the time, Steve was working on over 200 different projects, and his job involved engineering machines to create images of cancer cells in different test scenarios.

It came as a surprise to me when I saw the images of cancers that Steve and his team were collecting, that they were kind of beautiful. I am not alone in recognising the aesthetic value despite a harrowing subject. In the ‘Emperor of all maladies: The biography of cancer’, the author, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes,

‘The bedlam of the cancer genome, in short is deceptive. If one listens closely, there are organisational principals. The language of cancer is grammatical, methodical, and even – I hesitate to write – quite beautiful.’

Artificially coloured so changes could be seen on screen, the cells themselves created bright and interesting patterns on deep, dark backgrounds.

They reminded me of star clusters and constellations.

Indeed, the disease has the same name as a constellation. However, this is down to Hippocrates the ‘father of medicine’ around 400 BC, seeing a resemblance between the spreading projections of tumours and the shape of a crab, rather than the more romantic, celestial notions that came to my mind.

And just as the stars seem infinite, so in fact is cancer.

There are as many cancers as there are people who have cancer. Cancer uses and changes our cells, our DNA, the very thing that makes us who we are. This means that the cancer someone gets is unique to them. When explaining why he chose the title Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer’ Mukherjee says,

In writing this book, I started off by imagining my project as a “history” of cancer. But it felt, inescapably, as if I were writing not about something but about someone… This was not so much a medical history of an illness, but something more personal, more visceral: its biography.’

It was when I learned this that I began to think about us as humans. What are the chances of our selves coming into existence at an exact point in time? Are our lives already planned out for us from that moment?

Because of the explicit link between cancer and our DNA, scientific fact juxtaposed with belief seemed to me to be two opposing approaches to the same subject: one of logic and the other emotional, but both very much a part of ourselves, our biology, and our consciousness.

I knew that what I created for my sci-art module couldn’t just be a presentation of Steve’s images alone. As an artist, I had to take what the scientists were discovering and expand on it.

The idea of opposing worlds, opposing ideologies colliding intrigued me. I started to compare the language used in academic literature and astrology texts.

On my final visit to the Cancer Research UK labs, I spoke to another researcher about my plans to use phrases from research and astrology to investigate the ambiguity of cancer: the disease and the star sign.

The conversation was awkward at first: he said, ‘how could people confuse texts from science with texts from horoscopes?’

But as we spoke, we realised that we shared an experience of tragedy – both our mothers had died from cancer. And as we spoke, understanding each other more as people, and less as scientist-and-creative, the conversation turned to that of fate: “Well, yes, I guess my Mum would have thought that she was supposed to get cancer, it was just what life had planned for her”.

There was that duality of cancer in action: researcher turned family member, maker turned philosopher; science and emotion; facts and fate.

My final sci-art piece, which is presented behind me, was originally exhibited at MMU last year, amongst the work of other emerging sci-artists who are also involved in Pint of Science. As you can see, I created two large textile prints, which hang like scientific posters.

One is an image of dying cells and also cells, which are responsible for seeking out and destroying the dying cells. This image was taken in the Manchester Cancer Research UK labs in January. The other image, which I took in the same week using online telescopes, is The Beehive Cluster, which is a group of a few thousand stars that were formed from the same molecular cloud, in the constellation of cancer.

One of the accompanying phrases is taken from the Cancer Research UK website, and the other from an astrology forum.

Even though I reveal this to the audience when I show the piece, I want the work to remain slightly ambiguous to incite discussion and thinking around research and belief in fate. It is not a criticism of either, but a chance to reflect on the meaning of both, particularly in the context of a disease that is so intrinsically linked with our own genetic make up.

Since making this work I have written for a sciart magazine Phox Pop, and I have more recently started another project with Cancer Researcher UK and an oncologist who looks specifically at Cervical Cancer. What I’ve learnt from working with researchers, is not only are they able to give me expert knowledge and information but they are amazing people. Anthea, the oncologist not only works as a researcher looking at ways to improve cervical cancer treatment in order to prevent side effects, but she works with cancer patients directly.

The researchers I’ve worked with are also often creative – noting the beauty in the slides themselves, and demonstrating new MRI machines using carved pumpkins. This relationship between art and science is interesting, especially when we think of how artists represented medical procedures before cameras. For example I’ve recently learnt that around 1928, the scientific researcher who invented smear tests hired a Japanese bird and fish painter to paint watercolours of his smears for gynaecologists to use.

However, I think it’s the role of contemporary artists to do more than represent science, and after speaking with oncologists I feel it is my turn yet again to take on the role of researcher, to find points to bring together, to experiment with them and potentially resolve them to create an artwork. I might not be making a life-changing discovery, but by making sciart it allows me to encourage discussion around some important subjects.

In conclusion, I’m not sure if the particular time we are born or the diagnosis of the cancer disease is predetermined. But what I do know is that the work being done at Cancer Research UK will help us diagnose cancer earlier, prevent cancer from occurring in the first place, and develop better personalised treatments to help beat cancer sooner.

We might not be able to change our birth signs, but perhaps we can alter what is written in the stars.

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One thought on “Written in the stars?

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