This is the second of two posts posts about our Art-in-Education book resident Alison Byrnes’s project Scientific Theories Once Widely Believed, Since Proven Wrong. If you missed our first post, catch up here. “Einstein was either right about being wrong, or wrong about being right, or partially right, or right at the wrong time,” writes Alison Byrnes in her artist’s book Scientific Theories Once Widely Believed, Since Proven Wrong. “He called his Cosmological Constant the ‘greatest blunder’ of his life.”
The book, completed just last week to a celebratory ice cream toast, is a delightful romp through some of our most ambitious and spectacular scientific failures. How do mammals reproduce? What is the mysterious nature of fire? How do bodily fluids or the brain’s topography account for our temperaments? Alison’s book reimagines ancient and early modern investigations into these and other quandaries, turning ordinarily dry material into a humorous and truly accessible catalog of obsolete scientific breakthroughs. Scientific Theories Once Widely Believed, Since Proven Wrong is Alison’s first book, and it’s especially impressive considering that she had never really screenprinted before her residency. The whirlwind production culminated in an edition of 60 books covered in bookcloth made of silk that Alison sourced from India, where she teaches at the Srishti School of Art and Design. The book is a perfect marriage of her academic interests—classics, history, and image studies—and her drawing style, which references the storytelling techniques of medieval illuminated manuscripts and Indian miniature painting.
In Alison’s reimaginating of the Einstein’s retracted Cosmological Constant theory—which posited that the universe was static rather than expanding—Einstein attempts to contain the universe in a giant bell jar, the universe depicted as a red-purple, squiggly-lined field of energy humming kinetically inside the glass. The book contains nine more silkscreened prints (upwards of 10 colors each) in which Alison uses compressed space and skewed, competing perspectives to stack disparate visual components to convey narratives as a pictorial whole. By contrast, each theory is accompanied by a short, digitally printed piece of text that explains how the theory was developed and reassessed by later discovery.
But in a curious twist, the text is tucked behind a gatefold that the reader must open to read, which cleverly turns the historical relationship between words and pictures on its head. The images are primary, and the text is supplemental. “History does not follow a straight path, though, for the sake of simplicity, that’s how we think about it, read about it, write about it, and talk about it,” she writes in her introduction. “The pursuit of knowledge, even the sorts of facts that seem indisputable in hindsight, is rarely direct.”
“Of course,” Alison adds, “a negative cannot be proven, so the title of this book is a misnomer, which would more accurately read, ‘Scientific Theories Once Widely Believed, Since Less Widely Believed.’’”
Scientific Theories Once Widely Believed, Since Proven Wrong is now available for purchase. For more of Alison Byrnes’s work, visit her website at alisonbyrnes.com, and see more images of her Artist’s Book Residency here.