Science's relationship with the arts

Image credit: Google Art Project

Science is often painted as a discipline rooted in memorisation and calculation. A challenging series of puzzles whose solution slowly let us understand how systems work, or an intricate stamp collecting process. Yet this picture misses something. Both are inextricably linked to creativity. New scientific thought requires the ability to think beyond what may be considered possible. Scientific theories and discoveries provide fuel for imagination and creativity. The world scientists uncover is often more fantastic than what imagination can conjure from scratch. This quality has been manipulated time and time again by artists.

Much like art, science is rooted in observation. Take Hooke’s Micrographia or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – they attempt to describe nature in the same way that Keats attempts to capture the essence of the harvest season in “To Autumn”. In a similar attempt to artistically represent nature, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” demonstrates patterns of turbulence, an aspect of fluid dynamics not mathematically defined until 1941. So, are the two really so different, or do they simply complement each other?

Many poets leapt at the wealth of terminology associated with science, especially medicine. In “The Lovesong of Alfred J. Prufrock” T.S. Eliot demonstrates this in his first stanza “When the evening is spread out against the sky // Like a patient etherized upon a table;” mixing sterile, medical images, with natural ones to create an effective metaphor. He manipulated what would have, at the time, been mainstream science, with creative thought to better his comparison.

More recently, science fiction and fantasy writers have also made use of the laws of physics when building worlds, or used science to explain seemingly impossible phenomena such as time travel or magic. Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s collaboration the Long Earth series, tweaks the multiverse theory to develop a very convincing story, which stays true to our modern understanding of science. Baxter studied mathematics at Cambridge, moved on to engineering, and is now considered a writer of “hard science fiction”. This focuses on the scientific accuracy – invoking a sense that what is described really is possible.

Science fiction has often served as inspiration for new feats of engineering and it is easy to see how – much sci-fi is based on imaginative ideas for inventions that would actually be very useful to us. This is seen in research by Professor David R. Smith at Duke University into metamaterial implementation of a transformational optical design which he says would function like the cloaking technology seen on Romulan ships in Star Trek. Here we see how creativity has inspired the development of a material which could have the applications seen in sci-fi, but could also have much wider applications in modern society.

And finally, when discussing the ways in which art and science are interlinked, we must mention Leonardo da Vinci. He used his artistic creativity and applied it to many fields of science – his artist’s ability to observe nature allowed him to see that “A bird is an instrument working according to mathematical law” and apply this to his theories about aerodynamics and artificial flight, as well as leading to the invention of the first anemometer, to measure the speed of the wind. Da Vinci is a prime example of why art and science are unmistakably linked, and while it might be a bit far-fetched to say that every lab should hire an artist, it is not so absurd to think that many scientists should be more open to the idea that art does have a place in their fields.

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