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Does Art Make the Scientist?


Underwater silica streamers in New Zealand. Click to enlarge.
I recently came across an interesting quote by Robert Root-Bernstein, a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" teaching physiology at Michigan State, and the controversial author of Rethinking AIDS.

The quote is from a letter to the editor in the July 2006 Physics Today written by Kent Eschenberg

Most eminent scientists agree that nonverbal forms of thought are much more important in their work than verbal ones. This observation leads me to propound the following hypothesis. The most influential scientists have always nonverbally imagined a simple, new reality before they have proven its existence through complex logic or produced evidence through complicated experiments. ...I suggest that this ability to imagine new realities is correlated with what are traditionally thought to be nonscientific skills—skills such as playing, modeling, abstracting, idealizing, harmonizing, analogizing, pattern forming, approximating, extrapolating, and imagining the as yet unseen—in short, skills usually associated with the arts, music, and literature. (Click here for full quote.)

Root-Bernsteininvestigates creativity and is a champion of the essential nature of the art-science interface. (He himself is something of a digital artist.) In his Music, Creativity and Scientific Thinking, he goes even further than the above quote, clearly putting scientists and artists at the same level:

We will therefore be able to recognize the greatest breakthroughs in the use of the human imagination precisely by their inability to be subsumed into the existing categories of either science or art.

Root-Bernstein’s work on the linkage between science and the arts has always sounded right to me, although I must admit that I suffer from a common malady among scientists: the belief that we are somehow more musically or artistically inclined than those in non-science disciplines. (I admit to being a fledgling blues piano player - mainly repeating blues riffs in the Key of C for the past 40 years or so) The advent of fractals, and the appearance of photoshop-like softwarefor fractal manipulation has removed this perceived asymmetry , which really is nothing more than basic elitism. Scientists and artists regularly produce fractal "art" , and compete head-to-head in juried competions (see my earlier post on the Mandelbrot Fractal Art Competition) It doesn’t matter whether the producer of the image knows the mathematics behind the images, or doesn’t know to make a simple sketch of a figure or still life.

What matters is the ultimate object of art and that ever-present eye-of-the-beholder rating scale.

Of course, it’s not just fractals that have helped forge the science-art divide. Photograph is also a rich source of science/art interplay. A great example of this is the figure at the top of this post. Taken by Duncan Graham, a geothermal scientist in New Zealand and titled An Angels Wing, the photo was part of the 2004 New Zealand exhibit Unseen Worlds – New Dimensions.

From the press release for the exhibit:


" Unseen Worlds – New Dimensions explores the shared ground between art and science, and is designed to give New Zealanders an opportunity to see the amazing images that scientists create in the course of their everyday work. "

Here’s a description of Duncan’s everyday work: he took the picture using a digital camera and glass-bottomed bucket … in a wastewater drain at the Wairakei Power Station, near Taupo…These deposits form when silica dissolved in the water precipitates on micro-organisms shaped like long filaments. As the micro-organisms grow and multiply, they build up thick deposits of silica which trail out in the surrounding water currents.

And now a lesson for artist-scientists: don’t dump out that wastewater.