Art & Science

I’ve been ruminating on Anil Cherukupalli’s excellent recent blog piece, The Artist in a Scientist. I don’t know, it’s difficult. But, reading the questions as put in the first paragraph, surely one must answer ‘yes’. It comes down to the adjectiving of the word ‘great’, and ones understanding of ‘scientist’ and ‘artist’.

After entering University later than most at the age of 31, I recall being struck by the number of (middle class) people who could play a musical instrument. However, having an artistic hobby or leaning, does not qualify one as an artist. Similarly, acquiring a science degree does not automatically convey the right to pronounce oneself a scientist, does it? So, can the postdoc banging out PCRs and gels all day, before going home to relax by strumming a few chords on the guitar legitimately be referred to as either? Although there is a recognised link between mathematical and musical ability, isn’t something more required? Like imagination.

Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” When he published his ground-breaking papers in 1905, whilst working as a patent technical examiner third-class, it could be argued he wasn’t a scientist, being as he had no university or laboratory affiliation. However, his insights were the stuff of great science and unequivocally demonstrated the essentiality of imagination. Does this, however, count as ‘creativity’, a label more readily applied to great artists – and does it apply even then?

Creation can be interpreted as something from nothing (the Biblical version), or an original product of human invention or imagination. The key word here is invention. And we invent from what we already know. Consequently, most apparently original work – scientific, artistic or otherwise – is arguably better regarded as invention, rather than creativity. We assume, when we view a recognised great piece of art, that it was a work of originality. Not necessarily so. And great scientific discoveries and ideas don’t always get attributed to the first to happen upon them. Every artist has their influences. Similarly, science builds upon prior concepts and theories (as long as the evidence continues to fit). Imaginative feats such as Einstein’s general relativity are rare, resulting in a completely new idea/work, which, moreover, remains too conceptual and abstruse for most of us to grasp. This is great science and great art.

A moody disposition is not just a trait of great artists: Newton was notoriously difficult; but if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been Newton. Delineating art and science as individual subjectivism vs. collective objectivism overlooks the fact that both are human activities, and it is fallacy to assume there is no overlap. Art combines detail and vagueness, but vagueness is essential to science also. Nobody knows what an atom looks like; in fact assuming it can ‘look’ like anything is probably ridiculous. The classic pictorial representations of the atom are merely representative and explanatory models based on available data, but artistic imagination was necessary in the visual construction of the image. And the notion of scientific reality was rendered truly wobbly with the advent of quantum theory. Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory”. However, it is (so I’ve read) the most successful scientific theory ever.

Einstein again: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” So, can a scientist ever be a great artist? Yes! Can an artist ever be a great scientist? Absolutely. However, can a great scientist ever be a great artist? Or is one intrinsically the other?

(P.S. Something tells me this is an unoriginal, subjective viewpoint.)

6 responses to “Art & Science

  1. Lee, I have some comments:
    1. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Yes! I think it is said (at least in an indirect way) by all the great scientists (for example Poincare, Eddington, Feynman, Heisenberg, de Broglie), philosophers or artists. But, of course, knowledge is very important too. For instance, Einstein had to be enormously erudite to link Planck´s theory with photoeffect or to interpret Lorentz´s transformations by postulate of absolute speed of light. Imagination is a kiddie game without knowledge (the same should be applied to art or philosophy).
    2. “individual subjectivism vs. collective objectivism” I think this youtube movie explains everything:

    3. “So, can a scientist ever be a great artist? Yes! Can an artist ever be a great scientist? Absolutely. However, can a great scientist ever be a great artist? Or is one intrinsically the other?” I think it is matter of probability and surroundings… Nowadays it is said science is too complicated, a narrow specialization is necessary, classical philosophy and art are antiquated etc., so we can hardly imagine the great spirit of “old” times. However, I am not sure that our time is really so different… I think today´s scepticism is actually just a waiting for a new complexity and enthusiasm.

  2. In my experience, both “art” and science rely on a precise balance of creativity and discipline.
    I’d like to point out that creativity, and creation, incidentally, do not only mean something from nothing (as you mention), but also – lucky us! – something new from something old.
    We build upon the discoveries of older generations – in both science and art.
    [otherwise, we’d be busy perpetually re-discovering fire, and the wheel ;-)]
    The ability to see reality through new eyes every day is a big part of creativity – it’s what stimulates invention, discovery, originality of interpretation of “acquired facts”.
    But at this point, without discipline, without a set of tools to actually shift our creation from the realm of ideas to a more accessible realm where we can share it, our creativity is useless.
    This may mean knowing the technical jargon of your field, knowing mathematics, or simply know which keys to press on the piano to execute your brand new sonata (or our arrangement of that old folk tune…)
    The problem is – IMHO – that many institutions tend to hammer in discipline and hammer out creativity as part of the formation process.
    Too much imagination is considered a drawback.
    And this for both scientists and musicians.
    The result is brilliant technicians, but lacking the spark.
    Anyway, just my two eurocents….

  3. Hi Boris, Davide,
    Of course, knowledge is important… and I’d never imply Einstein lacked any. He managed to combine it with imagination to brilliant effect – perhaps that’s what describes genius….?
    And ‘something new from something old’ is the same point I made about invention. You’re right about it being hammered out; this starts in school, and we do it to ourselves.
    Dunno. But then I’m a ‘stamp collector’.

  4. Read this interesting blog post.
    And I cannot agree with Davide more! Creativity is always shown inside a set of rule or regulation. If there’s no rule it is easy for anyone to imagine anything. But if all the known physical rules given, can you still have that freedom to reach a new theory?

  5. Thanks all :).
    Lee: He managed to combine it with imagination to brilliant effect – perhaps that’s what describes genius….?
    Boris: Yes, I think so. But I would say there are at least two types of erudition. First is based on simplicity of ideas (admirable instance of this can be the best, in my view, textbook of Physical Chemistry which is written by Walter J. Moore), second on detailed facts and specialization. Only the former is, I think, compatible with the great imagination and great discoveries.
    Andrew: But if all the known physical rules given, can you still have that freedom to reach a new theory?
    Boris: Good question for Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg or Prigogine ;).

  6. Another “stamp collector” here!
    And to be exact, a microstamp collector… :-P
    [To be honest, this thing about stamp collecting always bugged me. A little.]
    But back on topic – you have to scrap the rules sometimes and just go with the what-if model.
    You develop something completely new and then you go back to the rules and see what happens by fitting them back in the picture.
    I recommend this as an exercise to my students sometimes, and get LOTS of weird looks.
    But hey, I’m a paleontologist thatuses mathematics, so I must be a little weird anyway…
    But let’s say that sometimes you have to privilege imagination, sometimes you have to privilege discipline.
    It’s like a see-saw.
    That’s the fun part of being scientists, I guess.


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