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What has art ever done for science?

26 Sep, 2013

B0003258 Brain in the form of 1960s pop art - green“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 InvisiblePlaying 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

9 Comments leave one →
  1. iggytwin permalink
    26 Sep, 2013 9:14 am

    Reblogged this on Riding on the coattails of mediocrity.

  2. 26 Sep, 2013 9:22 am

    I too listened to The Life Scientific with Mark Lythgoe. It was one of the most interesting programmes for exactly the section quoted.

    The artist and education Dr Jill Scott who runs the Z-Node Phd Programme in Zurich as well as the Artists in Labs programme in Switzerland (which has now organised 39 residencies in 34 labs) recently came to speak as part of a programme organised between the Art, Space and Nature MFA at Edinburgh College of Art and the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh. She suggested that there are three interesting outcomes from collaborations between artists and scientists.
    Firstly public engagement, secondly enabling people to see their disciplines differently, and finally new knowledge. She was arguing that we need to be very careful of setting the ‘new knowledge’ one of these as a ‘gold standard’.

    But what I found really interesting was that Mark Lythgoe precisely described the second of Dr Scott’s three potential outcomes. He spoke very eloquently about the way that one particular project had enabled him to rethink his practice. What was so curious was that he was struggling to articulate the value of that in any other than personal terms. He clearly felt that it was very important but that he could not frame it as an effective counter to Lewis Wolpert.

    Unfortunately Lewis Wolpert’s statements, as presented on that programme, came across as more about epistemological authority and power than about a relational understanding of the potential for different disciplines to interact in positive ways.

  3. eliotnorth permalink
    26 Sep, 2013 12:14 pm

    As a medic who believes the practice of medicine is an art underpinned by science I really disagree that art has ‘contributed zero to science’ – I have on so many occasions found art and science dialogue and collaboration to be a two-way street in terms of exchange of ideas and the sparking of new lines of enquiry – as you so rightly say in this article. Too often medics (and scientists) sit in isolation. This does nothing to improve public perception of the important work that is undoubtedly being done. Dialogue with the arts and humanities (indeed any groups outside of your normal comfort zone) who possess different skill sets and often great gifts of communication surely benefits science because if we cannot communicate our work effectively or understand the importance that creativity plays in this communication then science will just be talking to itself and will eventually run out of oxygen.

  4. eliotnorth permalink
    26 Sep, 2013 12:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Chekhov was a doctor: Medicine, health, & creativity and commented:
    Art and Science – a two way street in my book!

  5. 29 Sep, 2013 1:59 pm

    I write plays that are mysteries with real science experiments in.
    (Excuse the plug. :) )

    I firmly believe that progress in different fields actually relies on cross-border fertilisation. The arts can be a place for thinking through the implications of the science, and also for suggesting new ways of developing ideas. They can inspire people to research, and (in the case of my own plays) help children to understand why science is important and relevant to them. (The children get locked in the haunted house and have to use their science to get themselves out.)

    Interestingly I approached a well-known scientist, after a short story had been accepted for an anthology, and asked him if he would be willing to advise me on whether the science was believable. (This particular story was set slightly in the future). I would, of course, have been willing to credit him as science advisor but he wanted to claim joint authorship, and my editor felt – as I did – that this would be very unfair. We ended up going ahead without the advice. This is a problem that has arisen in other contexts too. I guess it is because scientists, like most people, have absolutely no idea of the amount of work that goes into producing a good short story – or novel, or play. The correct position – according to The Writers’ Guild – is that the person who does the writing owns 100% copywright. Believe me – pay is so low that we do need this to make the work viable.

    Thanks for this excellent blog. Of course art has contributed a great deal to science! I do think that it might contribute even more if scientists became more generally aware that we artists need to eat, and that we rarely have a salary – as they do. :D

  6. 30 Sep, 2013 3:38 pm

    Lewis Wolpert’s statement that “Art has contributed zero to science, historically,” is overly broad and factually incorrect. Here are two counter examples: Casper and Klug in their 1962 paper “Physician Principles in the Construction of Regular Viruses,” attribute insights into the structure of biological viruses to Buckminister Fuller. Historian Gregory Moran also reports that sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s use of tension and compression influenced Casper and Klug. Secondly, the 1996 Nobel Prize winners for Chemistry, Robert F. Curl Jr., Sir Harold Kroto, Richard E. Smalley, for their discovery of the C60, (60 carbon atoms in the shape of a truncated icosahedron, or a familiar football/soccer ball) which they named Buckministerfullerene.

  7. 30 Sep, 2013 9:55 pm

    Can you please edit my previous comment which is still under consideration? The Casper and Klug paper is titled “Physical Principles” not “Physician Principles..” Thanks.

  8. 1 Oct, 2013 7:38 am

    Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… This is a timely reminder. I’m starting to write for an online magazine where, I find, my scentist’s preference for words and graphs can be limiting. Like every biologist I know, I can sketch diagrams with ease – here’s a sheep, here’s a parasite living in the sheep – but for more subtle understanding, we need real artists. Anyway, art isn’t always visual. There’s music too. It was good enough for Bach!

  9. Oli Preston permalink
    21 Jan, 2014 3:00 pm

    I love the topic of art as a driving force for research. If the popularisation of important research topics can drive public interest and thus public spending, then the direction of contribution is really enigmatic.

    Richard Dawkins puts it nicely in his 30th anniversary preface of The Selfish Gene; “…a new way of seeing, as I have just argued, can in its own right make an original contribution to science”

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