Are sciences and the arts two sides of the same coin?

Louise Wells.

Arts and Sciences.  Chalk and cheese.  We often see the two disciplines as being extreme opposites, their differences irreconcilable.  STEM subjects are frequently stereotyped as analytical, rigorous and dry.  On the other hand, the Arts are regularly thought of as soft subjects, lacking the structure provided by Science.  Instead, they are viewed as imaginative and sometimes wishy-washy.  It is not just the fields themselves which are subject to stereotyping.  The people who study or work in the different areas are also typecast.  Scientists are perceived to be diligent with above average intellectual capability and few social skills.  Musicians, artists, dancers and writers are instead described as having the “artistic temperament” – emotional, impulsive and impractical.  There appear to be no shared traits.

On the surface Science and the Arts seem to be completely different worlds, each with a language of their own.  These perceptions are largely reinforced by our society.  From a very young age you are expected to excel at and have a natural tendency for either numeracy or literacy, never both.  This divide is exacerbated further at secondary school.  At this level, the two fields often nurture different skills.  If you shine in the arts then you are creative, good at coming up with original ideas and translating them into a form others can appreciate.  On the other hand, science fosters your ability to follow instructions in order to complete a practical, and to learn and regurgitate facts within the time frame of an exam.

These divisions continue to be reinforced as you get older.  Students only take three or four subjects at A Level, leaving little room to mix different subject areas.  This means that many students have nailed their colours to the mast and decided on a specialism by the age of 16.  At university, there is a constant battle over which degrees are the most challenging and can therefore be considered superior.  This debate often spills over into media outlets, with popular websites such as The Tab and Buzzfeed publishing a range of articles on the stereotypes and merits of different degrees [1] [2] [3].  The idea of having to belong to one camp or the other continues after you finish your education.  It is not uncommon to hear someone referred to as “a jack of all trades”.  Being able to many things but not be an expert in any of them can have negative connotations in our society.  All these things help to develop the notion that arts and sciences are incompatible.  One must either be an artist or a scientist.

The concept of arts and sciences as two separate cultures is not a new one.  In his 1959 essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, C. P. Snow talks about the “mutual incomprehension” which separates science and more traditional culture such as literacy and classics [4].  He goes on to talk about neither culture knowing the virtue of its counterpart.  Even in the 1950s, there were stereotypes covering everything from level of education to political allegiance, as well as divisions between the two academics communities.  One side considered it uneducated not have read War and Peace, while the other side had the same of view of those without knowledge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics [5].  At the time, Snow’s work caused great debate and, in some cases, outrage.  His claims that science was on the up and would shape the future were particularly provocative [6].

Times have changed since Snow’s essay.  Knowledge of Latin and Greek is no longer required in order to gain a place at Oxbridge.  The view that scientists are not intellectuals is no longer commonplace.  Academically gifted students are now encouraged to study STEM subjects at university as well as studying older, more traditional subjects such as English, history and classics.  However, even with these changes, many of the divisions that Snow and his contemporaries discussed 60 years ago are still relevant.  In fact, the rapid advancement of science is, in some ways, causing the rift to grow larger than ever.  In an age where science and technology seems to dominate, is there still a place for the arts in our society?

Historically, arts and sciences have had a close relationship.  Going back to the 15th Century, the famous painter Leonardo da Vinci was also a gifted scientist and inventor.  As well as producing world famous works of art such as the Mona Lisa, he also discussed gravity and optics in his notebooks.  In addition to this, he ‘invented’ the bicycle, parachute and helicopter hundreds of years before they were actually built [7].  Moving through to the present day, there are many eminent scientists who also excelled at painting, writing or music.  Likewise, there are also scores of celebrated artists who were interested in or had a career in science.  In their 2004 paper, R. and C. Root-Bernstein identify several examples of both cases.  Louis Pasteur was an excellent painter, while Sir Humphry Davy wrote poetry that was acclaimed by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Sir Edward Elgar took out patents on several chemical processes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle trained in and practiced medicine [8].

So why is it that there are so many ‘artistic scientists and scientific artists’ [8]?  Are the two fields more similar than people often perceive?

Both artists and scientists share many defining qualities.  They must both be committed to their chosen discipline and prepared to put in an enormous quantity of work.  For a scientist, this is likely to mean studying hard in order to get the grades they need to gain a place at university.  They then must commit to three years doing an intensive undergraduate degree, followed by a year on a Masters course, and three or four years working towards a PhD if they even want to have a chance to become a researcher.  For someone in the arts, commitment has a different meaning.  For a dancer, it might mean leaving home at the age of 11 to go to boarding school and train for a professional career instead of having a normal teenage life.  It might mean smiling on stage and making it look effortless even though their feet and bruised and bleeding.  Whatever commitment means to the individual, both scientists and artists are prepared to put in a huge amount of time and effort in order to achieve their dream.

Another common trait is teamwork.  Imagine if each player in an orchestra decided not to follow the conductor and instead played at their own speed.  The result would be a disaster.  The conductor and each individual musician must work together to create the desired sound.  The better they work together, the better the result.  If they are able to play as one perfectly synchronised unit then they can produce magic.  Even a soloist must work with teachers, sound engineers and marketing teams in order to put on a successful performance.  A similar thing is true of scientists.  A singular nerd working away in his laboratory will very rarely produce a significant breakthrough.  However, if a group of scientists collaborate on a project they can often generate revolutionary results and ideas.

Even Albert Einstein collaborated, working alongside mathematicians Marcel Grossmann and Michele Besso to create his theory of General Relativity [9].  Scientists not only work together within their own field; they also extend this to work with colleagues from other disciplines.  You get biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers all working together.  Without this collaboration, many of the great leaps forward in science would not have happened and we would not have developments like the MRI scanner [10].  In both cases, very few things can be successfully accomplished without collaboration and teamwork.

People who earn a living in the arts are no strangers to failure.  Most of them will have endured several unsuccessful auditions or pitches before they made it to where they are today.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples of perseverance in the face of rejection is J. K. Rowling.  She was turned down by 12 different publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [11].  Since then, over 450 million copies of the Harry Potter series have been sold and the novels have been translated in 79 languages [12].  Rowling is also the first author to become a billionaire, showing that she was right to persevere and to not take no for an answer [13].

The same is true in the world of science.  For example, in 1962 Josephson published a letter describing his theory on the properties of supercurrents through a thin layer of insulating material.  John Bardeen, a two times Nobel Prize winner, published a response challenging Josephson.  This led on to a debate at a conference later the same year, where neither side was able to convince the other and the disagreement was not resolved.  Then, in 1963, experimental evidence for the effect Josephson had described was published.  His theory, in conjunction with experimental observations, would go on to earn him a Nobel Prize in 1973 [14].  This demonstrates that both in the arts and sciences you need to have the courage of your convictions and not be afraid to persist against all the odds.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of both artists and scientists is their creativity.  If you ask a member of the public to name someone creative, they will almost always suggest a painter, writer, musician or actor.  Without prompting, they would not suggest a scientist or inventor.  People who work in the arts are perceptibly creative.  They channel their intelligence to produce words, music and images in which we can lose ourselves.  Everyone has that film, book or song which transports them to another world.  In science, it is not so simple.  Growing up, science is either right or wrong.  You learn facts, you learn equations, you learn to use what you know to get a good mark in a test.  Studying science is often a production line that leaves little room for creativity.

Now stop and think for a moment.  Where did all the equations and theories you learnt in school come from?  Someone used their intelligence to look at the world around them and create a way of describing what they observed.  If scientists were unimaginative, we would not have Newton’s Laws of Motion, Einstein’s theory of Relativity, or Schrödinger’s Cat.  We would also be without telephones, aeroplanes, and the World Wide Web.  By thinking about science in this way, it is clear to see creative thinking is needed to make developments and breakthroughs.  Without that spark of inspiration, technology, medicine, and our view of the world would not have changed for thousands of years.

The two fields are not just connected by the shared qualities of the people who study and work in them.  There is also a correlation between success in one field and having an interest in one or more aspects of the other.  As discussed earlier, many famous scientists took a keen interest in and often excelled in the arts.  Likewise, many people who gained celebrity for their involvement in the arts also had either a job in or a passion for science.  It would seem that there is a link between polymathy and success in your chosen field.

In fact, in a study of Nobel Prize winners, it was found that the people who received the award were 2.7 times more likely to have an arts and crafts hobby than a member of the U.S. public [15].  The authors of this study came to the conclusion that vocational and avocational skills and knowledge interact in a positive way.  Interests outside of your chosen field allow one to develop skills and attributes that would not have been so refined otherwise.  This idea is true for both arts and sciences.  An artistic scientist might be able to improve their skills in visualisation or communication.  On the other hand, a scientific artist might increase their ability to observe and critique what they see or find a different way of approaching their work.  One feeds into the other, allowing the person to flourish.

In short, appearances are deceiving.  At face value, arts and sciences seem to be as far removed from each other as possible.  However, look closer and you find they are intrinsically linked. While it is true that the products of arts and sciences canœ be very different, the skills and processes each field requires to produce results are extremely similar.  Without teamwork, perseverance, and creativity, neither field would thrive.  Taking all this into account, arts and sciences truly are two sides of the same coin.


[1] The Tab Edinburgh. (2015). Doing an Arts and Humanities degree doesn’t make me inferior. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2017].

[2] The Tab Cambridge. (2016). Pipe down humanities, you don’t know suffering. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2017].

[3] BuzzFeed. (2014). What Does Your University Degree Say About You?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2017].

[4] Maughan, P. (2013). The Two Cultures. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2017].

[5] Snow, C. (1993). The Two Cultures. 1st ed. London: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Whelan, R. (2009). Fifty years on, CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ are united in desperation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2017].

[7] (2014). BBC – History – Leonardo da Vinci. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[8] Root-Bernstein, R. and Root-Bernstein, M. (2004). Artistic Scientists and Scientific Artists: The Link Between Polymathy and Creativity.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[9] Janssen, M. and Renn, J. (2015). History: Einstein was no lone genius. Nature, 527(7578), pp.298-300.

[10] Jogalekar, A. (2009). Perseverance, important problems, fellowship and dreams: Take-home lessons. [online] Nobelpreisträgertreffen. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[11] Flood, A. (2015). JK Rowling says she received ‘loads’ of rejections before Harry Potter success. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[12] (2017). About us – Pottermore. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[13] (2011). Pottermore: JK Rowling facts and figures. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2017].

[14] McDonald, D. (2001). The Nobel Laureate Versus the Graduate Student. Physics Today, 54(7), pp.46-51.

[15] Root-Bernstein, R., Allen, L., Beach, L., Bhadula, R., Fast, J., Hosey, C., Kremkow, B., Lapp, J., Lonc, K., Pawelec, K., Podufaly, A., Russ, C., Tennant, L., Vrtis, E. and Weinlander, S. (2008). Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 1(2), pp.51-63.

Are sciences and the arts two sides of the same coin?

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