Discovering the Art of Scientific Practice

Andrew Coe.

Though we strive to have an education system that nurtures both the creative and logical capabilities of its pupils, somewhere down the line many students are faced with a choice between two paths: arts or sciences. It is rare to find an A-level student who, for example, takes Physics alongside Fine Art, or Chemistry alongside Classical Civilisation. This split of opposing academic channels may dictate the career and lifestyle of the student when they make this choice in their mid-teenage years – but is this divide really so clear-cut, and how (or why) should we attempt to bridge these gaps?

The ‘Culture and Major Events Tracking Study’, published in 2015 and directed by King’s College London, involved asking participants whether they considered themselves to be ‘arty’ or ‘sciency’ (amongst other things). Despite these imposed categories, it was found that of the 2091 respondents, an impressive 52% of those who identified primarily as ‘sciency’ also stated that they were ‘arty’; of those who responded as primarily ‘arty’, 47% identified as ‘sciency’ in addition. Clearly, many people feel that they are not restricted by an arts/science divide in their lives. Of those with (or working towards) a science degree, 70% attended one or more arts or cultural event in the last year (20% above the population average), implying that even those with a background in science are unlikely to restrict themselves to a single academic channel in life.

Perhaps then the challenge lies not in convincing people that they can pursue both sciences and arts simultaneously, but instead in removing the use of these categories in the first place. The combination of sciences and arts is key to extending outreach and indeed plays an essential role in convincing the public that funding science via the tax-payer is a worthwhile and rewarding process. In the same study mentioned above, of the 1334 participants who agreed with the statement, ‘science should be seen as a more fundamental part of society and culture’, an overwhelming 72% suggested this be done by making science ‘easier to understand’. Clearly, fundamental physical laws cannot be changed for our convenience, and the risk of “dumbing down” explanations to those without a scientific background can face scrutiny from experts, who may find it patronising or purposely providing an incomplete (and therefore hollow) picture.



Responses to the question, ‘You agreed with the statement that science should be seen as a more fundamental part of society and culture. What needs to change to make this happen?’ (Image credit)

However, I believe that a person can have a strong passion for science regardless of their educational background, and outreach methods cannot afford to be elitist. There are a multitude of blogs, YouTube channels and magazines aimed at amateurs who share an enthusiasm for science and, though they may keep equations to a minimum, they gain impressively large audiences. Though mainstream media is not as reliable a medium as journals, it is drastically more effective in showing people the rewards of learning about science. Indeed, the viewers and readers of these outlets may choose to pursue further studies in science because of these materials, if they are able to, and so by using these varied platforms which are rooted deeply in performance, entertainment and creativity, we also build a self-sustaining community of scientists.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t overlook the enjoyment that can be found in science for purely aesthetic reasons, even without the need for any academic understanding on the viewer’s part. Just as works of art, architecture and sculpture can evoke intense emotional responses in an observer, a variety of scientific images, from galaxy clusters right down to individual atomic arrangements, are able to awaken something of the sublime. For many of us, exposure to pictures like these at a young age through textbooks and documentaries, possibly without prior context or information, gauged our interest to explore the field further. Though mathematical concepts have an elegance and arguable beauty of their own, a response to an image specifically is something many people can share and ultimately gain enthusiasm for.

Indeed, artists have created their own interpretations of scientific ideas and successfully merged these disciplines. In November 2016 at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, artist Penelope Cowley unveiled an oil painting representing gravitational waves, “inspired by the sheer overwhelming immensity” of the discovery. The project extends into further media in the form of a video, including audio which is devised from the ‘chirp’ of the observed gravitational wave. In this, we see not only the scientific significance of the discovery, but also the historical and cultural impact that followed and the importance of expressing these artistically as well as scientifically to capture the magnitude of the event.


Infinite LIGO Dreams, Oil on Canvas, Penelope Cowley (2016). (Image credit)

However, many could claim that projects such as this lack the credibility to be truly labelled as “scientific”. Though this is a valid opinion, I would argue that the very basis of our presentation of data and research is always down to human interpretation and subjective depictions of our findings, and excluding artists would be a somewhat hypocritical move. Moreover, scientific publications relied heavily on artistic talent before the days of photography to put across findings from experiments, a key example being sketches of animals and plants; for instance, Hooke’s Micrographia, published in 1665, is as well known for its historical importance in the world of art as much as its scientific reputation. Bringing us back to the 21st century, many popular blogs exist solely to document scientific illustrations, demonstrating a ubiquitous appreciation for those who can use their artistic talents to convey scientific ideas.

Our delight for “pretty pictures” in the modern age of advanced image capturing techniques is not as purposeless as it could seem, since many researchers are able to use this for engaging with a wider audience – take for example the nanoscale printing of racing cars and a model of Tower Bridge with details on the scale of micrometres, or the now iconic atomic scale IBM logo. Pursuits such as these, while not directly advancing research, are excellent proof-of-concept exercises, not least because they can demonstrate the flexible capabilities of new devices but can additionally gain excitement from those outside the professional scientific community. This is particularly poignant in a world where quirky or amusing images can go viral on a global scale within hours, presenting another opportunity for gaining a far wider audience through collaborations with people who possess a skill for social media.

Most importantly, our emotional response to scientific images or concepts is what makes learning about and researching the science behind them all the more rewarding and fun. Pupils become motivated to find out more about the context behind the image, and researchers are presented with an opportunity, if they are well funded enough, to implement some additional creativity in their work. This also allows researchers to develop greater personal investment in their work, presenting a platform for self-expression within an environment which can often feel limiting or sterile when personal bias cannot be allowed to influence results.

Naturally, we are not limited in our multidisciplinary work to join only science and visual art. The performing arts offer an excellent way to communicate science, a recent example of which was ‘The Entire Universe’ starring physicist Brian Cox and comedian Eric Idle, broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day, showing a true merger between popular science and entertainment. Presented in the format of a musical comedy as well as a lecture, concepts such as the Big Bang and the Higgs boson were introduced through song and dance numbers. Furthermore, Cox’s record-breaking nationwide tours, in which he brings science outreach to audiences in UK arenas, are a testament to the power of science as entertainment. A vast array of other examples in which sciences and arts combine their strengths are out there; these include individuals such as a Harvard-educated physicist turned dancer, who has aided research into the use of dance as therapy for Parkinson’s disease, and long term projects such as the Science Gallery London, which is due to open in 2018.

A good example bridging perhaps the most unlikely combination of disciplines was the announcement in Systematic Botany in 2012 of a new genus of ferns named ‘Gaga’, so called in part because of the shared nucleotide sequence, ‘GAGA’, in the DNA of 19 species, but also because of the uncanny resemblance between a fern gametophyte and an Armani Privé dress worn by Lady Gaga in a performance at the 2010 Grammys. Dr Kathleen Pryer, the person behind this name choice, stated in an interview with MTV, ‘as a fern biologist… I was like, ‘Good God, she’s wearing a gametophyte!’ It was like she was speaking to us!’ Her excitement in combining this research with a modern pop-culture icon brought far greater exposure to her work than would have been possible if she had given it a more “traditional” name. Pryer also chose the name in order to tribute work carried out by Gaga in campaigning for social equality, stating: ‘We often listen to her music while we do our research. We think that her second album, ‘Born this Way,’ is enormously empowering, especially for disenfranchised people and communities like LGBT, ethnic groups, women – and scientists who study odd ferns!’ This exemplifies the qualities of a researcher with a conscientious interest in social wellbeing, something that I believe needs to be more prevalent in the scientific community.


Life imitates art? (Image credit)

Having discussed each of these success stories, why then is there still this impression of a split between the two sides of arts and sciences? To return to the timeframe of GCSEs and A-Levels, the issue seems likely to be career driven. Some universities provide lists of recommended subject combinations to be taken at A-Level to maximise a student’s ability to get on to their preferred course. For the majority of students who will take 3 subjects in their A2 year (second year of sixth form), these 3 subjects are already outlined by the university, effectively limiting the student to no choice of their own if they are determined to pursue a specific course at a specific institution. Careers guidance articles that offer tips on higher education can be just as limiting, since they are often similarly hell-bent on directing a pupil down a path that groups similar subjects together.

It has been suggested that students who take a far more comprehensive combination of subjects, such as those carrying out the International Baccalaureate in place of A-Levels, have an advantage when they continue 6 subjects, including maths, sciences, languages and humanities, to a higher level. However, this comes at the cost of a greater workload, and the possible disadvantage of having a less in-depth knowledge of a subject they may pursue at degree level compared to their A-Level qualified classmates. An American college style system, which takes a far more general approach before a major subject is chosen by the start of the third year of study is another suitable comparison that may well have an edge compared with our emphasis on studying single subjects in depth. There is little that can realistically be done about this, other than to ensure pupils are made aware of the different qualifications that can follow GCSEs and which ones would be best suited to them, depending on whether their interests cover a wide or narrow range of subjects.

Courses at universities that offer ‘and’ or ‘with’ in the titles allow for a combination of subjects to be studied, arguably providing an option for those whose interests are multidisciplinary. Generally, these joint degrees do not cross the arts/sciences divide, and though exceptions such as the BASc and combined maths and music courses do exist, they do not come close to being a part of the mainstream. It is also important to note that many people will gladly filter-out arts or sciences classes, deliberately avoiding “essay subjects” or instead dropping those with maths-heavy exams. Relatively few students will self-identify as a “Jack of all trades”, but care must be taken by educators not to impose limits on those who would prefer to apply their skills to a variety of disciplines. Ultimately, the material we learn in English classes will be used when writing reports in science classes, and the skills developed in maths are likely to assist us with compositions in music lessons; the divisions certainly aren’t as clear-cut as they may initially seem.

Whilst it is inevitable that many of us will eventually converge upon a subject within either the sciences or the arts, there is no reason why the skills we build in reaching that point are not applicable to a variety of fields. Despite possible preconceptions, creativity and logic are skills which are actively developed in both the arts and the sciences. A historian, for example, will need to be well informed of current discussions and hypothesis concerning the period they are studying and of any emerging sources available in order to piece together a structured, consistent account of events of the past. Similarly, a physicist may conduct an experiment, make a new observation and, by exploring current literature and working through mathematical models, will aim to deduce an explanation for what was observed. In this instance, the two processes have the same fundamental requirements in using one’s ability to analyse existing information and extrapolate these into an original, cohesive idea.

More subtle is the motivation and philosophy that drives scientists and artists forward; it has been suggested that while scientists are looking to answer questions, artists are conversely looking to create more of them. This is a very specific point of view and, I feel, is an injustice to both sides; scientists should become excited when at some point in the search for a new theory, something unexpected occurs and several more questions are created, each posing a new challenge. Likewise, art is there to help us explore concepts that are both personal and societal, analysing issues such as climate change, the rise of technology and our biological identity, and in doing so this can indeed provide answers or insight.

In concluding this exploration of the social divide in arts and sciences, I believe that our biggest restraint is the idea that we can realistically compare one subject with another. Unless there exists a person who has comprehensively studied every possible academic field and who can make a genuinely well-informed, disinterested judgement, no argument will be entirely convincing. Even if this argument could be made, there would be very little point; sciences drive the arts and the arts drive the sciences. It seems that the arts/sciences divide will only persist for as long as we listen to those, particularly in teaching, who assert its existence.



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Discovering the Art of Scientific Practice

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