Reconnecting Art and Science

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…” Albert Einstein

When we are faced with something new and unfamiliar it is examined to distinguish its differences from what is known. Our survival depends on being able to recognise subtle unique characteristics that separate one thing from another. What is edible or toxic, what is safe or dangerous, who is friend or foe. We have become very good at sorting knowledge into highly specific niches, genres, categories and taxonomic groups. Everything in its own separate box. Differences are important yet over enthusiastic classifying has perhaps lead to the disconnection of subjects that share far more similarities than not. My left and right hands are certainly different but it is their similarities that make them work so well together. This is true of many things but let us focus on the unfortunate divide that has formed between the Arts and Sciences.
As a child, everything is so marvelously interconnected. So much of life is still a mystery. The beginnings of discovery and understanding come from constant experimentation, through creative and deconstructive play, storytelling, dance, song and the eternal question, “why?” Give a child some paint for the first time and instantly it becomes a sensory study of texture, tone…and probably even taste. Squeezing it through fingers, mixing the colours, before exploring beyond the bounds of paper to other surfaces within reach; wood, brick, floor, wall, cloth, skin, hair. It becomes difficult to distinguish these actions as being specifically art or science based. They may well end up with an abstract expressionist masterpiece, but they will also know a great deal more about the physical and practical qualities of paint. Art and Science appear to naturally cooperate in the developing human mind, yet this connection seems to erode with age and we are left with more choices between one or the other and less opportunities to explore them together.
Thankfully I had a family that encouraged both my scientific curiosities as well as my creativity and imagination, but my journey to adulthood and career was often faced with frustrating decisions. One passion invariabley had to give way to another. At secondary school, I frequently had to pick between either Biology or Drama, Music or Maths, Art or Physics, Chemistry or Literature. And at a Tertiary level the institutional push to create specialists tends to restrict diversity even more.
Surely it wasn’t always this way. Early evidence of art, preserved in caves across the globe, like Sulawesi and Chauvet, show careful depictions of animals, plants and people, culturally and astronomically significant events and concepts exploring mortality. Important aspects of biology, geography, social law, moralistic lessons and history are still commonly conveyed through song, dance and performance by many indigenous people today. These creative expressions also reflect our inherent scientific fascination with the natural world around us and a striving to understand our place within it.
The first humans must have faced many situations that required the full spectrum of their capabilities. A dramatic change in the environment, the discovery or loss of a resource, a new tool made. Adaptability is a vital trait of our species. With new information, we can reprogram our behavior to better assure survival. We can accomplish, in one life time or even a moment, what most organisms may take hundreds of generations to achieve through chance mutation. Adaptation on this scale requires a certain kind of mind that doesn’t just learn from the past but also plays with potential futures.
The ageless art of storytelling has provided a means for documenting and remembering our past as well as a way to test and practice possible future scenarios. In the same way animals play fight so they can hone their skills for the real thing. The ‘what if’ ponderings of fantasy, science fiction and philosophy are the creative sparks that fuel curiosity and drive us toward science fact.
Science is valued for inventions; the tools and technology it has given us, but also for ideas. Copernicus and Heliocentrism, Darwin and Evolution, Einstein and Relativity. Ideas such as these required great leaps of the imagination, often amidst widespread opposing beliefs. When art and science have combined in the minds of our most esteemed intellects it makes for powerful outcomes.
Dr Lynne Kelly’s research and the work of The Orality Centre into oral based memory technologies, from cultures across the expanse of time and wisdom, has given us a new glimpse of old ideas and has helped revive the highly compatible relationship between art and science. Orality is a fusion of all disciplines and naturally creates positive feedback loops with information, because the components of knowledge are not kept isolated. The technical and the romantic are entwined in a symbiotic striving for understanding and greatness.
Allow a moment for playful thought. Imagine a desirable future where students of all ages are encouraged to explore the whole repertoire of tools used to build the foundations of human intellect. A world where Polymaths are not just the remarkable exception to the norm, where it’s less about choosing between left and right brain and more about finding the similarities and connections that allow both to work so well together. Perhaps we can’t all be Leonardo da Vinci with his famously exquisite drawings and elaborate inventions, but if our minds are cultivated in an environment where thinking can thrive in all directions, we will be more ready to adapt when life presents new mysteries.

Alice Steel

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