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Guest Blog

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Artists and Scientists: More Alike Than Different


Art and science. To those who practice neither, they seem like polar opposites, one data-driven, the other driven by emotion. One dominated by technical introverts, the other by expressive eccentrics. For those of us involved in either field today (and many of us have a hand in both), we know that the similarities between how artists and scientists work far outweigh their stereotypical differences. Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: “What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?” Both search deeply, and often wanderingly, for these answers. We know that the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio are two of the last places reserved for open-ended inquiry, for failure to be a welcome part of the process, for learning to occur by a continuous feedback loop between thinking and doing.

I have always bridged art and design, science and technology, navigating both poles and the space that lies between them, with degrees in EECS from MIT and a PhD in classical design from Tsukuba University in Japan. In elementary school, my parents were told at a parent-teacher conference that I was “good at math and art” (but went on to tell their friends I was good at math). My work combining computer codes and traditional artistic technique was one attempt to carve out a space in the middle, and I find I’m always trying to find others in my tribe, hybrids who seek to marry disparate fields as a way of life.

In DaVinci’s time when expertise in art and science had not yet matured to the polarized state in which they exist today, they coexisted naturally. Of course, science’s level of sophistication back then was quite different. But from where I sit as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, it is clear to me that even current practices in scientific research have much to gain by involving artists in the process early and often. Artists serve as great partners in the communication of scientific research; moreover, they can serve as great partners in the navigation of the scientific unknown.

That is why at RISD we have been leading a movement to integrate Art and Design into the recent focus on STEM and turn it into “STEAM.” Our investigation began with an NSF-funded workshop hosted at RISD in January 2011. “Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art-Science-Design Pedagogy” brought together thinkers from the fields of Art + Design, Science, Creative IT, Engineering, and Mathematics to examine the ways educators and policy makers can bridge the gap between art and science.

STEAM and arts integration are crucial in K-12 education, engaging students in the STEM subjects and ensuring that creativity doesn’t fall by the wayside as we chase innovation (how could it?). But it’s also an important idea for research. Artists and designers reformulate the questions that can guide a project, rethinking or redesigning systems at their base. In this vein, RISD is collaborating with the University of Rhode Island and Brown University on new ways to visualize oceanic data to see the impact of climate change on marine life. The work began with a joint course entitled “The Hypothesis Studio,” focusing on the very questions at hand.

Historically, many researchers and organizations have approached our school expecting students and faculty to “design the poster” for their initiatives. It’s true, an artist’s or designer’s expert hand can often make the story of scientific discovery more compelling, results more broadly understandable, and complex choices actionable. DaVinci himself said, “Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. ” At RISD, we just collaborated with Brown University on a studio course dedicated to the concept of Communicating Medical Risk, so that patients could make truly informed decisions.

Artists and scientists tend to approach problems with a similar open-mindedness and inquisitiveness — they both do not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps. They make natural partners. With such complementary thinking, there is great potential when they collaborate from the offset, resulting in unexpected outcomes that can be exponentially more valuable than when they work apart. You can see the power of collaboration between artists and scientists in the decades of advancement in computer graphics at SIGGRAPH; in the latest exhibitions at the Science Gallery in Dublin, or in the midst of groundbreaking scientific results with the Large Hadron Collider and more.

With all that we have to address in the world – warming continents, fluctuating economies, monstrous cities – pursuing scientific questions in tandem with artists and designers may not seem like conventional wisdom. But given the unconventional nature and scale of the problems we face today, there is real value to be gained from collaborations that bridge the best talents we have in both the quantitative and qualitative domains. Artists and designers are the ones who help bring humanity front and center, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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