What has art ever done for science?
“Art has contributed zero to science, historically,” said developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert on Radio 4 some time ago.
This sounds like a sweeping generalisation – particularly considering he was in discussion with neuroscientist Mark Lythgoe, who has done more than his fair share of collaborating with artists – but is it fair? The influence of science on art is easy to see – just look at the paintings of da Vinci or Rembrandt to see how far back this influence stretches – but what does art offer science?
The Wellcome Trust has been funding collaborations between artists and scientists for over fifteen years. So it would seem sensible that we should ask what scientists have gained from working with artists.
Measuring scientific outcomes from artist-scientist collaborations is not straightforward: progress in science is judged by peer-reviewed publications, and joint scientist-artist publications are rare. But does this mean collaborations are of no value? Yes, they can be time consuming and one’s peers don’t always see the point, but scientists also tell us they can be richly rewarding for them personally and for their science. Even beyond the obvious benefits from improving their communication skills, raising their profile and enhancing public engagement, collaborations can offer some very interesting and unexpected side effects.
For starters, work with artists can open up new lines of enquiry. Take the work of microbiologist Simon Park working with artist Anne Brodie in Exploring the Invisible. Playing with the natural bioluminescence from bacteria led to novel observations of the patterns formed as the bacteria exhausted their oxygen supply opening up a new avenue of research for Park, who is now working with a mathematician to model this phenomenon.
Art also allows new ways to visualise data. Artist Susan Morris spent three years wearing a monitor that measured activity patterns and exposure to light (imagine trying to rely on a volunteer for such a long period!) and then created tapestries illustrating her own sleep and wakefulness patterns. As well as being beautiful artworks in their own right, these pieces presented data in a manner that scientists would consider unorthodox, but which opened collaborating scientist Katharina Wulff’s eyes to a whole new way of interpreting the information.
And what of the relationship between a scientist and their subject? Neuroscientist Patrick Haggard and Catherine Long, a disabled artist, worked together to explore the phenomenon of phantom limbs. Long was both collaborator and subject and was a named author in the resulting peer-reviewed paper. Haggard says their close working relationship has made him rethink the way he views the volunteer ‘subjects’ who help with his research, including changing the terms he uses.
‘Geek’ culture is definitely on the rise, but not all scientists are comfortable with this increasing ‘boffinisation’ and the identity that it gives them. These are the scientists that seek out interesting collaborations not just beyond their field, but beyond their culture, and reap the rewards.
There may have been an element of truth in Lewis Wolpert’s boldly dismissive statement. Historically, the exchange of ideas between scientists and artists may have tended to be one way, but it needn’t be so and it is changing. It takes immense focus to become a scientist and spend one’s entire career studying one particular ion channel, for example; the idea of working with an artist, whose work is more conceptual, may seem at odds with their own approach. But sometimes, we learn more not from peers who challenge our findings, but from outsiders who challenge our entire world. Art, it seems, has a great deal to contribute to science.
Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement, Wellcome Trust