Art and Science: two sides of the same brain, or co-existing somewhere in the middle?

20 Mar

2013 March19 FeaturedImage(Jane and I have known each other for a few months since we met during a Science Online Vancouver event. Last week we both attended the Science and Arts discussion hosted by Science Online Vancouver at the Science World. I invited Jane to write something about her take on the discussion. Jane is currently a postdoctoral scientist working on cancer research at the University of British Columbia.)

As I attempt to write about art, I must first hereby state a disclosure of potential conflict of interest: I’m a scientist and I tend to approach things from a logical, rather than emotional, standpoint. Like many others who have had scientific training, I take a critical approach to information, which has been instilled in me carefully over the years. This approach can spill over into the way we as scientists see life in general, though the following is told purely from my own point of view.

As I moved through the school system I gained an impression that an artistic nature was an innate talent, present from a young age, which had to be nurtured. I felt certain that I didn’t possess this talent and therefore it could never be learned. I resigned myself to being excluded from that club; art felt uncomfortable to me, because I had no clue how to interpret it, never mind create it.

Science, on the other hand, felt safer, more familiar, probably because it had particular rules and followed seemingly logical patterns. Once the basic rules were learned, it felt like riding a bike. I remember moments of excitement while learning about science in my school days, mostly due to the infectious enthusiasm of my biology teacher when imparting stories about the origins of genetics; but mostly science felt good because if I thought hard about a concept I could understand it well enough to keep it in my short term memory for the purpose of answering exam questions, then ostensibly let it go again. To me, it seemed to require no leaps of creativity or uncertainty. Art felt more and more like a foreign language as time went on, one that I had no hope of learning.

For years after finishing school and pursuing further scientific education, the stereotype of science as representing logic and reason, and art as being creative, entertaining and slightly frivolous, persisted in my unconscious mind. At university, the arts students seemed to spend their time in bars or gadding about town, while we were toiling in lab practicals till late. We were ‘meticulous’, they were ‘carefree’ and whenever we did happen to rub shoulders, they seemed more interesting and worldly. But we still secretly thought science to be a more worthy pursuit in terms of answering the important questions about the world we live in. The two groups seemed to have little in common, even then.

These types of stereotypical ideas of scientists (smart but dull) and artists (flaky but fun) came up again at an event fusing science and art, held by Science Online Vancouver on March 12th. The group in attendance meandered through an exhibition at Science World, which had built sculptures and scenes from everyday household objects and brought them to life with ropes, springs and pulleys – aptly named Creativity in Motion.

The discussion afterwards centred on the boundaries and overlap between art and science. Many questions were raised including the notion that by its nature, science is precise and planned while art is creative and spontaneous; this idea was challenged vigorously by someone who said that the process of creating a work of art is often painstaking and subject to trial and error. It was only when we held up both scientific discovery and artistic creation as processes that common threads really began to emerge and dance together, blurring those lines between left and right brain.

For example, people who like to make craft beer can enjoy using a rigorous scientific process combined with artistic licence, to yield a final product that pleases the senses of smell, taste and touch – in other words, a work of art! Forward planning is an element of both processes, as is creative thinking when something doesn’t go according to plan. Monumental scientific discoveries have been made due to mistakes or lucky chance.

I conclude that to make sense of our world, and keep on improving our surroundings and challenging ourselves, fusion of many different points of view through collaboration is essential. There are intersections where science and art can meet, exchange information and create together, such as the Science and Poetry Mashup that took place at 1965 Gallery in Vancouver this past December. Through widening my personal definition of what constitutes art, and expanding the communities of people I meet and whose work I observe, I’m finally learning that it’s not too late for me to become an artist too.

Jane O’HaraBy Jane O’Hara, PhD. I am a postdoctoral scientist at the University of British Columbia, where I do research on breast cancer biology. I want to use my recently-found love of writing, along with other creative methods, to communicate science. Follow me on twitter @Curious_JaneO.

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5 Responses to “Art and Science: two sides of the same brain, or co-existing somewhere in the middle?”

  1. Phil Caines March 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    As one of the backup dancers from Jane’s ‘artistic’ interpretive music video version of Gangnam Style entitled “Genomics Style”, I can verify with 100% certainty (give or take 6%) that Jane is an artistic visionary.

  2. Chad Atkins (@chemchad) March 20, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    I missed the Sciovan session, but have always held a deep appreciation for art – in fact, I’d take it one step further and say that it baffles me. Similar to Jane, I felt that art and I could just never get along. I was resigned to the cold truth that I was incapable of creating anything artistic outside of the occasional stick man (or woman..ahem) and sinking hours into some sweet coloring books – hey, we were all kids once.

    The fact is, as an adult finding my way in the field of science, I still feel incompetent in the realm of art. What I have come to understand, however, is that the collaboration Jane mentions – bringing the art and science communities together – is vital to the success of science communication to the general public.

    When someone mentions the word “art”, the typical cognitive response is to think of paintings by the van Gogh’s and the da Vinci’s and so on and so forth. And that response is fine. I think what I’ve learned is that “art” transcends more than this – art is the creation of something that stimulates the audience through visuals or auditory response.

    For the most part, scientists don’t spend their time tinkering with new and exciting ways to explain their science and show it off to the world – we’re lab rats, we spend our time IN the lab! I foresee a future where cutting-edge science is accompanied by various art mediums, whether it be mixed media, video-clips, posters, real-time gif’s, etc., and the ability for the audience to ENGAGE and INTERACT with the science is heightened, and their understanding is primed.

    Cool future, huh?

    (Recent example: check out the cool video regarding Steve Withers’ research towards creating a new influenza drug http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/2013/02/21/new-flu-drug-stops-virus-in-its-tracks/ Maybe it’s not “traditional art”, but that’s something the public can look at, understand, and appreciate)

  3. Artem Kaznatcheev March 24, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    I am a little worried that this post presents the stereotype of science as not a creative endeavour, and then leaves the misconception unaddressed. I don’t know what a student in an experimental field does, but as a theorist my job depends almost completely on creativity. I don’t view what I do as that different from a writer. It is just that the writer’s work is slightly more constrained by character development and consistency, and proper and meaningful allusions to previous literature than mine; and my work is slightly more constrained by development and consistency with experiment (dare I say, with ‘reality’), and proper and meaningful citations to the theorems and theories of earlier scientists. Apart from that, they are the same. Like art, the work relies on a few creative sparks followed by a long tedious technical investment.

    • Jane O'Hara March 26, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      Hi Artem, I definitely wasn’t trying to imply that science is not creative – I know that the opposite is the case. That was discussed at length at the Science World event, but my blog post was coming primarily out of my own experience of coming all the way through an education system and all the while failing to make the connection between art and science. The point you make, that creative thinking is required in both fields, is something that is so obvious but eludes lots of scientists and I dare say, artists!

      I am a typical ‘wet-lab’ molecular biologist, so most of what I do day to day entails practical experiments, but in figuring out what the data mean, I turn to thinking, reading, drawing and looking at graphical representations of processes e.g. in cells, followed by yet more thinking – and this is how I figure out where to go next.

      It was very interesting to read your comment and get an insight into the more theoretical side of science. As well as the artists and scientists getting together more to collaborate, perhaps the theoretical and experimental camps could also benefit from more cross-pollination!

  4. Terrific T March 26, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Just want to thank everyone for commenting. I am excited that this post is generating some discussions – about art & science, but also about different perspectives in science. I also came from an experimental science background, so the theoretical side really intrigues me (especially since I from time to time work with theoretical physicists in my department). Artem writes about his theoretical work on his blog, often in very interesting contexts – economy, history, society, etc. For those interested in a look in the theoretical science world, definitely give his site a visit. And Jane, thanks again for writing this post!

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