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Art versus science

Art is science made clear

- Jean Cocteau -

This blog post is about how I chose between two possible careers, one in the arts and one in science, and how over time I came to discover that these seemingly opposite choices were in fact more similar than different.

I loved art in high school. It was easily my favourite subject; but, then, I also loved science too. When it came to make my applications to universities, I really didn’t know what to do. There was an opportunity cost to every choice. If I applied to art school, I knew I would probably never set foot in a laboratory again. If I chose science, I would miss out on the access to resources and the support to develop my artistic point of view that art school would provide. I had also fully bought into the stereotype of the starving artist, and this made a career in the visual arts seem unrealistic.

The only thing that I was certain about was that I urgently wanted to travel, and so my solution was to take a gap year and figure it out. I worked in a terrible office job for six months to earn enough money (marking off every day in my desk calendar with a big black X), and in June of 1999 I flew to Europe, where I spent the next 6 months travelling from London to Istanbul and 46 cities in between.

Did I receive an epiphany about what to do with my life? Well, no, not really. But I did figure out how to avoid making a terminal decision, and returned to Sydney and enrolled in a liberal arts degree. Eventually, though, all the voices telling me to make a sensible career decision (including my own), started to steer me in one direction. I ended up completing a degree in biochemistry, and then going on to graduate studies in Public Health and Epidemiology. Today I am a lecturer with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

And yet, I was never completely convinced that I had made the right choice. I always felt a little bit in-between. And I kept drawing.

What is interesting is that, the more my career in science and medical research has progressed, the more I have had to draw on the skills that I learnt from the arts – particularly as they relate to written and visual communication. I never anticipated how much creativity science would demand of me. And I never foresaw how my divergent interests were in fact a sign that I was well-suited to the job.

The left-brain right-brain myth

According to the popular theory of left- or right-brain dominance, people who are “left-brained” tend to be more logical and analytical with strong critical thinking and mathematical skills, whereas people who are “right-brained” tend to be more intuitive, empathic and creative with strong artistic skills. This is based on the idea that brain functions are divided between the two hemispheres: the left side controls language and logic, whereas the right controls visual comprehension.

However, more recent research has shown that brain functions are not in fact neatly dichotomised between the two hemispheres of the brain. Instead, both sides of the brain work together to perform tasks such as speech or mathematical calculations. While brain activity may occasionally be higher in certain regions depending on the task, brain scan studies show that both sides of the brain work an equal amount on average (1). Most people do not actually have a stronger left side or right side. Studies of mathematically gifted individuals have shown that their abilities are in fact related to both sides of the brain working together effectively, rather than hemispheric differences in their brain function (2).

The implication is that our “brain type” does not make us uniquely suited to one type of vocation, nor does it preclude us from another. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but having strong analytical skills does not make you “left-brained” and thus unsuitable for an artistic career. Nor do strong visual and artistic skills imply that you are “right-brained” and thus bad at complex reasoning or maths. These are problematic ideas that can be self-limiting. There are plenty of scientists who pursue artistic hobbies, and plenty of professional artists who are highly organised entrepreneurs. In fact, artists and scientists have much more in common than is generally acknowledged.

Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.

- Ray Bradbury -

Art = Science

One of the things that I have come to learn over the course of a 15-year career in science is that the practice of science and the practice of art are in fact very similar. Both are creative, both are analytical. Both are based on careful observation and patient execution.

In truth, not only are the practices of art and science very similar, indeed the emotional experiences of being an artist or being a scientist are also very similar. Both require you to pour hours, days, and years of your life into a pursuit that if full of uncertainty. Both require you to endure critique and sometimes outright-rejection of work that you have put your soul into. Both are vocations that people choose for love and not money, which is helpful because there isn’t much money in either.

Having given it a lot of thought over the years, here is why I believe art and science are fundamentally similar occupations:

  1. Both art and science are highly creative processes. This is obvious in the case of art, but the creativity that science demands only becomes apparent from graduate school onwards (i.e. once you are meant to be the one making discoveries, not just reading about them).

  2. Both art and science are highly analytical processes, based on careful observations and constant decision-making. This is obvious in the case of science, but it is less-obviously part of the artistic process, where decision-making tends to happen on an intuitive level.

  3. Both art and science involve extensive research, and there is a long experimental process leading from idea to masterpiece/discovery. Inspiration may arise spontaneously, but there is usually a long road from inspiration to execution. But neither does inspiration arise in a vacuum – there is also a long process of observing and absorbing (whether conscious or not) that precedes inspiration.

  4. As a scientist or an artist, you are constantly learning and constantly evolving in your practice, thinking, and methods.

  5. Both artists and scientists need a lot of resilience to deal with occasionally brutal critiques and the inevitable experience of rejection that comes with putting your own work out into the world. Scientific manuscripts are frequently rejected accompanied by scathing comments, and art students have to endure the character-building experience of group critiques. And then, to survive in our chosen careers, we have to successfully sell our work/ideas (literally or figuratively) to others.

  6. Both artists and scientists have to embrace failure as part of their process. Sometimes you have to scrape off a painting and start again; sometimes your hypothesis is wrong and you have to start your experiments over. You can spend hours, days or even years on something with no guarantee that it will work out. It’s an annoying truth about creativity that not all of our ideas are good ones. Artists learn this early on, but scientists are protected by their training and an academic system that sends them out into the world only after having spent several years having their ideas filtered by an academic supervisor.

  7. Both art and science are frameworks for closely observing the world around us and seeing things that aren’t immediately apparent to others. Our work is then to communicate these insights to others. It’s the experience of working with a life model when, after observing them for a long time, their face and body take on new meaning and become profoundly beautiful. Less romantically, it is also the experience of working with a dataset for so long you know intimately know its form and shape, and observing a trend that you instinctively know is significant.

  8. There is plenty of actual science in art - the chemistry involved in oil painting, the physics of making a marble statue balance on its toes, the geometry in Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, for example.

  9. There is also plenty of art in science. The communication of many scientific concepts relies largely on finding ways to visualise them - for example infographics, medical imaging, fractals, even our concept of space. In addition, many modern scientific instruments function by converting molecules, mass or energy into a picture that can be interpreted visually. Never underestimate the extent to which design has made scientific discoveries accessible to human understanding.

  10. Both art and science demand an eye for detail and tendency towards perfectionism.

  11. And, probably as a consequence of all of the above, both come with the trope of insanity: the mad scientist, the crazy artist. Kindred spirits.

Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.

- Leonardo da Vinci -

Nobel Prize winners are more likely than other scientists to have an artistic hobby

I am far from the first person to come to the conclusions above. Albert Einstein had a lot to say about the similarities between scientific and artistic ways of viewing the world. There are similarly numerous quotes from Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on the importance of cultivating both scientific and artistic thinking.

More recently, researchers Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein have formally studied the ways in which training in the arts can actually foster scientific insights. In 2008, Robert Root-Bernstein and colleagues published a study in which they compared the avocations (i.e. hobbies) of Nobel Prize winners to those of “regular” scientists who hadn’t had such distinguished careers. They found that Nobel Prize winners were 7 times more likely to also be visual artists, sculptors or printmakers as compared non-prize winning scientists. Nobel Prize winners in science were also more likely to have side careers as glass blowers, poets, authors, musicians, actors, dancers, and even as magicians than non-prize winning scientists (3). What Root-Bernstein et al. conclude is that “successful scientists accrue a wider range of skills, often including experience with a wide range of patterns, manipulative ability, and hand-eye coordination, than the average person or the average scientist” (3).

What these findings suggest is that different talents interact with each other to facilitate problem solving and insight. Root-Bernstein gives several examples. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was informed by his diverse interests in hunting, collecting, travel, palaeontology, geology, geography, zoology, botany, agriculture, breeding and economics. Hans von Euler-Chelpin, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1929, was initially inspired by his painting classes that introduced him to colour theory and inspired him to investigate the chemical properties of coloured materials. Luis Alvarez, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1984, went to an arts and crafts school, and his later success was attributed to “an ability to visualise and build almost any kind of experimental apparatus he could imagine” (4). Albert Einstein went to a secondary school that emphasised sense perception, visualisation, and modelling through self-directed activity. Einstein himself attributed many of his most revolutionary insights to “musical thinking”:

The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.

- Einstein -

The final question that Root-Bernstein et al. address is whether eminent scientists are simply genius-polymaths who are good at everything. They point out however, that studies show that eminent scientists do not differ in IQ as compared to their less-eminent peers, and there are plenty of Nobel Prize winners whose IQ falls below genius-level. What is different about these individuals is that they are often well-balanced all-rounders with a high degree of creativity. They have also cultivated skills of craftsmanship – including observation, visual thinking, and manipulative ability - which prove useful when it comes to intricate experimentation. In addition, Root-Bernstein argues that these all-rounders have cultivated “habits of thought and action that include practicing, persevering, and trial-and-error problem solving.”

As every divided kingdom falls, so every mind divided between many studies confounds and saps itself.

- Leonard da Vinci -

It is a loss for science then, that education now tends to be separated into silos of learning, and that the arts and the sciences have become so fundamentally divorced from each other in modern universities. The evidence is that scientists could benefit from greater exposure to art and crafts. But....on the other hand, the contemporary practice of science is almost by necessity an all-consuming pursuit. The publish-or-perish dogma of academia leaves little room for hobbies (or for holidays or sleep for that matter!).

When I was making my own choice between pursuing visual arts or science, part of my rationale was that I could do art on the side of a scientific career, but I couldn’t really do science on the side of an artistic career - or at least at the time I didn't see how I could. But as my research career progressed, I found I had less and less time left over each day to give to side-interests, and there have been times when I let other interests go completely (which always left me feeling miserable and unbalanced).

The truth is, beyond a certain level of practice in a given discipline, it becomes challenging to do anything else part time. That is as true for artists as it is for scientists. And so for those of us with diverse interests, we’ll always have the same dilemma: the more attention we give one interest, the less time we have left to cultivate the others. Multiple lifetimes might solve the problem... but, to be honest, I would probably just spend all those extra years still trying to be a scientist and an artist at the same time. But I don't think that there is anything strange about that anymore - in fact it makes a lot of sense.



  3. Root-Bernstein R et al. Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 2008; 1(2): 51-63

  4. Root-Bernstein R and Root-Bernstein M. The Art and Craft of Science. ASCD, 2013; 70(5):16-21

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