(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.
By 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.