Science and Art

 The silk collective | Konstantinos Tsioris, Tufts University

from SaCrIt

Art and science are both abstractions of the commonly and humanly perceivable. Both use a privileged language of expression.


This was my initial response to reading a blog post by Lizzie Crouch on science, art and emotion a couple of days ago. Lizzie was talking about the tendency for science to be experienced and thought of as cerebral, and art to be thought of as more emotional – science naturally ‘feeds’ the head, while art seems to ‘feed’ the soul. Can either be enhanced by borrowing some of the qualities from the other?

Science can definitely be humanised – whether that is in the anthropomorphic sense, or just in terms of the relevance of an abstract concept to human life. But can science be expressed in a further abstracted form – as art? Science is already abstracted from what we can perceive (as is art), so combining the two implies a double layer of abstraction.

This might make the nitty gritty of what the science ‘says’ harder to grasp or even invisible – but do most of us need this level of understanding? Isn’t that the role of a scientist – to study and learn and develop a special and privileged understanding of the intricate technicalities of science? So I don’t mind that loss of clarity.

And to be honest, losing detail is good for me. I want the big picture, the broad strokes, the key messages. And art can help me with that. So I’d like to think it might help other people too.

But what I think is really interesting is the idea that both art and science express a level of detail about their subject that is not readily apparent to the everyday, walking down the street, person. And they both express that detail in a specific and specialised language. In science that language is technical, jargon-ised. In art it is layers of meaning supported by a visual language of form, colour, texture.

I am more comfortable with the ‘language’ of science. I know how important specialised language is. I used to be a doctor and it really is necessary to be able to communicate with other professionals quickly, succinctly and accurately. And that is what specialised language provides. That technical shorthand. Common and standardised across the profession. That allows you to quickly comprehend and assess a situation and act promptly – effectively to save a life.

I feel like a stranger to this language in art. Whether that is painting, literature or poetry. I don’t speak the lingo. And while I can appreciate a nice painting, I know there is a whole level of meaning that I am missing out on. Does that matter? I don’t know. But the point I am rather poorly making is that it is not a case of throwing art at science to make one or the other more comprehensible. Both are privileged forms of communication – they have more in common than you might think. Both need decoding for the ‘concrete’ meaning to be apparent. But both are also nice things to see and appreciate to what ever level your understanding goes. And together they are just as enjoyable. Not more or less so. Just as enjoyable.


25 thoughts on “Science and Art

  1. I enjoyed your post. I have a background in science communication but am more of a creative type…write, photography, paint. I am not good with technical stuff and have a real aversion to it and some science can fall into that category too. I can’t get my head around it. Our family recently went to Questacon, a fabulous science museum in Canberra, Australia. We all loved it, however, we each found our niche. I couldn’t get my head around all the pulleys and levers etc even though they used a car to illustrate how they worked but I had great fun taking photos of several special art effects using different colours lights, mirrors etc and took some great quirky photos. I still don’t really understand the science behind them though. I love alot of popular science although it is also important to be accurate about how science is reported and that can get lost in the process. Scientists tend to be very precise and science and artistric licence don’t often go hand in hand that said, a lot of science does need to be “prettied” up for the average person to take an interest.

    • Thank you. I think there is a role for accuracy and detail in science reporting and more formal ‘science communication’, but equally a role for letting go of much of the detail in a more sci-art context. I like the fact that you can enjoy something that might be considered ‘science’ without having to understand all the intricacies and technicalities of the subject. Communicating science and promoting the enjoyment of ‘science’ are therefore similar, and perhaps linked by the idea of engagement. I like to think that if people first ‘enjoy’ science, they might then be inspired to go and find out more about the detail. It’s a tricky old topic though.

      • Thanks for the complement.

        In reality, the cartoon creation is the easy part. Persuading an editor to publish them for payment, is mission impossible.

        But, I (foolishly) live in hope that one day, ……………………

  2. I used to be a scientist and I have always created art too. Ive always felt, at least hoped, that the two in fact were complimentary, rather than at odds with each other. The language of the two are at least, superficially, very different, but the two do impact on each other – if you look back particularly at the period of the early 20th century, art and science were intrinsically linked – the great discoveries in physics and in psychiatry were influencing the artists of the time and I do wonder if this was vice versa too.

  3. There is a lot of interplay between Science and Art. Some artists may not know the science behind their art, but this does not keep them from creating very beautiful works of art. Other artists may understand the science behind the materials that they use and come up with something that is lifeless to one person and full of meaning to another. An engineer and an artist can look at an object of art and see it in many different ways. The engineer may wonder about the techniques used to create it and the artist may wonder what the creator of the object was thinking while the made it and what they want others to think when they see it.

    As an educator, I always have to look for ways to construct knowledge. If I know a student’s background, I may be able to better explain something new to them. Often the methods I choose are vastly different between someone with an artistic background and someone with a scientific background. However, I may use art to explain science since most of my subjects are technical.

  4. “Both are privileged forms of communication – they have more in common than you might think.”

    Being a creative person coming from a mechanical engineering background, I could not agree more. Creating art oftentimes involves great attention to detail just like science. I see it very much like two different languages.

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  6. The quest to expand what is known is a common thread between them. Art is specific experience made broad and accessible, while science is continued experience (observation) made specific (repeatable cause and effect). There’s a lot of wiggle room in that description but it all comes down to our experience of the world, the elements, the characters, the laws and eccentricities. Thanks for this post! It really got me thinking about the ways we blend the two realms.

  7. Interesting dialogue. As a social scientist, I find it an imperative to find the balance between science and art and make understanding as accessible as possible. Partly because I do it as a professional practice for enhancing consumer culture…but the other driver is as a human studying humans and wanting us all to share the meaning that is out there.
    That is definitely more difficult to do with “hard sciences” because I think the grand design was to make that understanding only accessible to those who could influence change in the right way? Probably because the left brain aptitudes that contribute to scientific achievement also contribute to broader scale disorders, neuroses and other dysfunction that lead the the darker side of human nature. I’ve never seen a megalomaniac artist (or anthropologist, for that matter…just slightly narcissistic ones. 😉 )…but the mad scientist is definitely someone you don’t want to miss with.

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  9. I wonder if the artist tends to encode the common place world around us (inventing a new language through mythologizing), where as the scientist decodes the common place. But when the two overlap, you have some sort of beast emerge such as the development of the atomic bomb which puts everything into perspective. We used to talk about this subject in college art history courses. How do the plastic arts measure up to the awesome advances of the technological world? Art expands outward. It is not just a finger painting hanging in some gallery. I always used to joke that a Happy Meal toy will be the art historical relic of the future…but I now I really do believe it. Interesting post. THnx for sharing.

  10. Interesting. For me, science and art sort of flow together–they are both ways of seeing/understanding the world, and it’s one world, so their representations spring from the same ground, and perhaps, inform each other. Have you read Leonard Shlain’s “Art & Physics – Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light”? John D. Barrow’s “The Artful Universe” also explores the relationship between art and science. Good stuff.

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