Ph. Elisa Vettori

The importance of images in the development, understanding and dissemination of scientific ideas is hard to overestimate, but in some disciplines they can appear as a less relevant or even marginal tool. In the hard sciences such as theoretical physics, for example, numbers and graphs dominate: quantitative laws that establish relationships between measurable properties, tables of values, diagrams illustrating those laws.

However, in the study of extremely complex systems such as biological macromolecules, the descriptive power of a graphic representation provides an essential complement to the quantitative tool. Computational physics, which harnesses the power of computers to model and simulate matter, enables researchers to study the behaviour of incredibly minute and sophisticated fragments of nature, and does so with the power of numbers: an atom, a molecule, a quantum of energy, an interaction between particles… everything is encoded, manipulated, and returned by the computer in terms of numbers. But this “numberification” of matter is in itself incomprehensible to the human being, who incorporates and processes the surrounding reality through her five senses – the most important of which is sight, as the main instrument for both investigating the world at a distance and transmitting knowledge (writing, drawing, schematisation…).

Thanks to graphic representation, it is possible to establish a bridge between what the computer gives us and our way of understanding things: we see atoms moving in space, we observe molecules being deformed, we create abstract pictures that show the hidden order within numbers. The computer creates a world that we can only understand by giving it the right representation.

In this project we show a research group and what it produces. Images are used to describe not only science, but also the people who work on it on a daily basis. The scientists of the ERC VARIAMOLS project change role and become subjects of an “investigation”, studied in the spaces in which they move, in the relationships between them, in the way they relate to their work. The representation of the research group will try to make the public understand how it works, opening a passage in the ivory tower and showing the everyday life, the work, the life of the research laboratory. At the same time, scientific research is shown in its most evocative graphic representation, from the diagrams and renderings that populate scientific articles to the artistic reinterpretation of these images and the relationships that their creators have with them.

These images aim at establishing an informal dialogue between the members of the group and the observers, fostering a conversation on the importance of representation in science.

The scientific images are produced by the VARIAMOLS group members.

Photographs by Elisa Vettori.

Illustrations by Anna Formilan.


The first outcome of the VARIAMOLS VISUAL project is a participation to the European Researchers’ Night 2021 in Trento, Italy.