Why science and art might not be all that different. / by Kirk Dunkley

At the core of our being, we are compelled to explore and understand our environment. We are universally drawn toward the phenomena in our world that mystify our imaginations and drive our inquisitions. Through experimentation and creation, we attempt to build models of our world using both rational and creative modes of thought.

 Cloudscapes by Seb Janiak from his Kingdom series.

Cloudscapes by Seb Janiak from his Kingdom series.

Oftentimes these processes begin before we are even able to walk or verbally articulate our thoughts. A child begins experiencing the world almost all at once; hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling new things, experimenting with the tactility of the surroundings, constantly bombarded with new perceptual puzzles to solve. This process is ongoing and exponential. As we develop and mature, our mental faculties become capable of processing more elaborate questions about our environment. Just as it is in human nature to be curious about our external environment, we often project our curiosity inward, and question how our minds interpret and process the external world.

There is a tendency in popular psychology (and popular culture) to generalize the function of the brain into left and right parts- that is, the left performing all creative thinking, the right is responsible for rational thought. Creative endeavours involve making new ideas while thinking intuitively, while rational occupations involve reducing the unknown to fragments of simplified data so as to categorize and understand various relationships at play. One mode of thought attempts to build subjective models of phenomena, while the other attempts to deconstruct phenomena using pure objectivity. Such a divide arises in discourse surrounding fine art and science, generally the two are considered to be quite polar. “The relationship between art and science, being taken for granted, was preyed upon from the outside until a complete divorce was accomplished” (Halvey, n.d.). The artist is known as an erratic being, reacting to the environment in spontaneous outbursts of emotion, flinging paint haphazardly onto canvasses. The scientist, on the other hand, is seen as cool, calculated and methodical, reacting to the environment in an objective and meticulous manner with no margins for human error or spontaneity.

Contrary to what popular psychology might suggest, the artist must often proceed in a rational manner in order to understand their own conceptual drive to develop sustainable creative methodologies. The scientist similarly, may allow his or her mind to operate beyond the confines of method so as to remain open to new interpretations of data. As recently as the 19th century, it was common knowledge that our best thinkers in science were also artists, and that artists were also largely interested in the scientific discoveries of their time. It was not even considered necessary to mention the artist-scientist as a novelty, as it was a given that both realms were needed for a human being to have a balanced ability to rationalize and create.
A prime example of the interpenetration of rational and intuitive modes of thought is
Albert Einstein. Einstein believed insight did not come from logic or mathematics, but that insight comes, as it does for artists, from inspiration and intuition (Einstein, & Calaprice, 2005, 22, 287, 10). Einstein believed that "All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge ...intuition and inspiration....” and regarded imagination to be more important than knowledge. He believed that this was why at times he felt certain about his ideas while not knowing the why (Einstein, & Calaprice, 2005).

 Einstein Playing Violin (Hope, 1921)

Einstein Playing Violin (Hope, 1921)

Einstein was a keen and talented musician, and was known not only for his scientific discoveries, but also his ability to play violin and piano. He believed that his discoveries were the result of musical perception. For Einstein, music was not just a hobby, but the driving force behind this intuition. His thoughts were directed by music in new and creative directions. . Einstein attributes his greatest discovery, the theory of relativity, to musical perception. (Suzuki, 1969, 90). “He never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and even musical architectures” (Wertheimer, 1959, 213-228); According to Arthur J. Miller, “he preferred the highly structured, deterministic music of Mozart, and imagined Mozart plucking
melodies out of the air as if they were ever present in the universe. Einstein thought of himself as working like Mozart, not merely spinning scientific theories but responding to nature, in tune with the cosmos” (186). "Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties" (Clark, 1971, 106). According to Einstein’s sister Maja, after playing piano he would get up saying, there, now I've got it (Sayen, 1985, 26). This difference in thinking is what enabled Einstein to make breakthroughs in science by seeing the world through the eyes of a creator.

Our creative insights can be verified by scientific method, while creativity fuels science. The scientific method is how we “do” science, and although the scientific method requires findings to be empirically objectified, it is the artistic method that leads to new insights and is the very essence of this “doing”. According to astronaut, doctor, art collector, and dancer Dr. Mae Jemison, “science or art is a ridiculous choice”; our mission, says Dr. Jemison, is to “reconcile and reintegrate science and the arts”. Both the arts and the sciences are not merely connected but manifestations of the same thing, “the arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity — [they] are our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the world around us, and our attempt to influence things (things in the universe internal to ourselves and the universe external to ourselves)” (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, 2009).

  • Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: Life and times. New York: World Pub. Co.                                            
  • Halvey, S. (n.d.). Einstein the Artist. Retrieved March 2013, from http://larouchepac.com/ node/20891                                                                                                                                
  • Sayen, J. (1985). Einstein in America: The scientist's conscience in the age of Hitler and Hiroshima. New York: Crown.                                                                                                       
  • Suzuki, S. (1969). Nurtured by love: A new approach to education. New York: Exposition Press.                                                                                                                                            
  • Miller, A. I. (2001). Einstein, Picasso: Space, time, and beauty that causes havoc. New York: Basic Books.
  • TED: Ideas Worth Spreading (2009, May). Mae Jemison: Teach arts and sciences together | Video on TED.com [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mae_jemison_on_teaching_arts_and_sciences_together.html            
  • Wertheimer, M., & In Asch, S. E. (1945). Productive thinking. New York: Harper & brothers.