Art, science and the great disconnect

by Kristi Charish

I’m a scientist. And by that I mean I’m really a scientist – molecular biology, genetics, cell biology, MSc, PhD, Postdoc- a bonafide ‘Big Bang Theory’ researching geek girl.

If the stereotypes now prominent in popular media are accurate, I should be about as interested in the arts as Sheldon on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ is interested in maintaining healthy social interactions with the lesser beings around him. But that’s not the case. I love the arts – literature, visual, theater, film, music, dance – I even dabble in sci-fi writing in my spare time – and I’m not the only one. A lot of scientists out there do a lot more than just ‘like’ art.

So why is there such a disconnect between the two? As a whole we tend to shuffle art and science into different compartments. We identify as either artists or scientists, as if allowing the two to cross paths will lead to imminent catastrophe… like a zombie apocalypse. Yet considering what we know from historical figures, such as Leonardo and Galileo who both engaged in the arts, science and art appear at their very best when melded together. In fact, scientists throughout history have approached science with an artistic spirit, achieving technological and scientific breakthroughs using intuition and imagination, tools we normally associate with artists. Instead of separating the two, I wonder if we should treat them more as twins in a mirror.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of taking art out of science is the potential for crippling the emergence of new technologies. Dr. Bob Root Bernstein, a Professor of Physiology from Michigan State University, has published a number of studies looking at the relationship between art and scientific innovation. He found that almost all Nobel laureates were actively engaged in the arts and many connected their art with scientific creativity. He also cites examples of everyday, essential technologies that have changed our world, my favourite being the invention of frequency hopping (the encryption backbone of cell phones and WiFi) by 1930s screen siren Hedy Lamarr in collaboration with composer George Antheil. The stents used in heart surgery to prop open the aorta? Origami.

Though art and science are separate entities to most people, there are places where the celebration of the melding of the two can been seen. One example (and a personal favourite) is Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds, which celebrates the art and science of the human body. Another is the city of Art and Science in Valencia, Spain, where the IMAX theater resembles a dinosaur skeleton. In that spirit I’m ending off this blog with art work from Dr. David Walker, professor emeritus at UBC in pathology who happens to be an accomplished sculptor, painter and scientist. My favourites are the ‘Golgi Apparatus’ and ‘invading leukocyte’, both inspired from his work in cell biology and pathology.

Art leads to scientific innovation and science inspires art. Like a pair of bookends they work best when used in tandem and change the way we view the world. Without one you can’t have the other and there is a lot to be celebrated in that!

David Walker, Professor Emeritus, UBC

David was interviewed by UBC masters student Krista Fogel, for her investigation on the use of creative art by high-ability scientists. Her thesis, “The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts”.

‘Although becoming a biologist may seem a diversion from art it actually has been a parallel realm in which I have explored the architecture of life and living organisms down to the supra-molecular level. For more than 30 years I have been exploring the cellular and subcellular realms of structure and trying to relate it to function. It has been a profound privilege and more and more it invades my art.’ David Walker

For more about David Walker see this interview with Nina Munteanu, SF writer and Ecologist. To inquire about David’s work: David.Walker@hli.ubc.ca

'Golgi Apparatus' carved in marble, by David Walker

Sculpture of an invading leukocyte, by David Walker

"A shoot emerging from a seed pod' in bronze, by David Walker