The inability to convey to the public exactly what it is scientists are doing in a meaningful and interesting way is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles scientists face. Can art change that?
What do scientists and artists have in common?
Both scientists and artists alike try and communicate the way in which they see the world. The public has empathised particularly with the science of the natural world and the environment; plants, botany, animals, climate and the like, especially since David Attenborough first introduced his powerful series examining life on earth in the 1980’s.
This has in part been due to incredibly strong visual images, photography and dedication of the cameras and scientists behind these programmes. Who can forget the Iguanas and the snakes episode? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about -youtube it)
This blog aims to introduce the idea that science, in order to be effective, needs the skills that art brings, to communicate and bring the discipline into the 21st century.
Science needs art
Jerome Kagan, an Emeritus professor at Harvard University and listed in one review as the 22nd most eminent psychologist of the 20thcentury, says that the arts contribute amazingly well to learning because they regularly combine the three major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store, and communicate knowledge: motor skills, perceptual representation, and language. http://Bazler, Judith, and Meta Van Sickle, eds. Cases on STEAM Education in Practice. IGI Global, 2017. .
A recent article in The Guardian (attached here) again describes how the simple communications of scientific ideas through art (starting in the 1600’s) can revolutionise and create a whole movement :https://franscienceart.com/2019/04/26/big-tick-energy-how-a-tiny-flea-created-a-revolution-in-british-art-art-and-design-the-guardian/
Scientific merit currently is measured by how many high impact papers you get or how many successful grants you write. (Many better people than I have written about this).
On the ground, in the lab, the automation of a lot of laboratory techniques and the introduction of kits has not only sped up the process of analysing data, but somehow removed the skills that scientists learned when practising their art. Losing out on the fine tuning of those motor skills that Jerome Kagan suggests we utilise.
You are given the solution to solving the problem- according to someone else, rather than troubleshooting it yourself, and perhaps finding more meaning and understanding. However, as I said, it speeds up the process- which is pretty great, but removes the journey.
Regardless of if you are in this century or the last in your scientific approach, the scientific research that gets scientists all exited can be perhaps a little ‘niche’ for the general public. I know and so do many other scientists, that it doesn’t matter how basically you explain something, there always comes a point when the listener glazes over. That thousand yard stare.
Let’s assume as a scientist you have gained two of the three major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store, and communicate knowledge: motor skills, and language, but what about perceptual representation?
Scientists experience frustration sometimes as others just don’t ‘get it‘. By enticing others to follow you on your journey, because they have somehow been communicated with about how exciting it is, then they will begin to reach a level of understanding that you can share.
Most effective communication in this digital age is via a plethora of image based systems; youtube, Snapchat, Instagram, and if you’re over 35 (I’m told) Facebook. Yes, I know there is also Twitter and LinkedIn and a host of others platforms. Indeed, suggested platforms for communicating science are primarily Twitter, which is not the media of many people under 18.
Platforms for visuals and artists
Scientists are told that the visual platforms are not effective platforms to communicate, unless you are a microscopist. I don’t really agree with that. Personally, I follow numerous microscopy, palaeontology, chemistry and other science sites on Instagram, and I find I am first hooked by the visuals then the information underneath reels you in. I have learnt so much from Instagram.
By swiping through imagery, you soon learn what grabs attention. And I’m coming to the obvious conclusion that scientists need to be thinking more in this way.
Problems with current platforms for scientists
There are publications obviously, websites (eg:Researchgate), but for communicating with the general public, it’s Twitter. For example, currently, I follow on Twitter an amazing Natural History scientist who uses the handle @flygirlNHM https://twitter.com/flygirlNHM?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor.
She has recently broadcast a BBC radio programme about the importance of flies-yes, flies, and I do recommend a good listen if you are able,https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00045kh but for all those budding scientists, or more importantly, the scientists who will never be- this might be lost to them.
Will anyone ever get it?
Once you start to focus in on a topic and become so engrossed in it, it becomes difficult to communicate effectively what you are doing, especially if others are not on your journey or don’t have a basic understanding of your field . The capacity to get creative with our ideas and think outside the box can only do good for scientific advances.
We as scientists ( I group myself primarily in that category but perhaps should be known as a “Scientart”) know a lot of information about a particular topic or idea. However, it’s expression and creative development is sometimes limited.
Does Art need Science?
Artistic and scientific skills should not be exclusive but embedded in every subject and whilst I have made a case for science to need art, does art need science?
I’m not talking about an artist going off and researching cancer, but instead gaining all the transferrable skills you get from being ‘scientific’. This means developments in observational skills, the objective assessment of what you see, constructing a strong argument, deduction, interpretation and understanding a subject until you ‘know it’ implicitly. Historians do it, as do geographers, but those pure artists? Any good artist would say that some of those skills are ones that they excel in.
Artists have skills that we as scientist could really collaborate well with and vice versa.
Making it interesting
Last week I was at the UCL Research as Art competition and during the prize giving, the panel kept saying how much they had learnt. The work was visually stunning and had piqued the interest of it’s readers enough for them to read on and learn.https://www.grad.ucl.ac.uk/events/
Poor science education turns a lot of young people away from science before it even gets interesting- something I personally find really, really vexing.
It is vexing particularly because when you’re young- 5,6,7 years of age everything is ‘WHY?’. This natural curiosity is amazing if it’s nurtured and allowed to grow. We are all scientists at heart.
Wouldn’t it be great, if the inspiring curiosity that you used to have about the world was reignited? Before the fun was sucked out of everything?
Contemporary examples that have broken the mould
I would just love it if my scientific research, that has taken years of discipline to reach, could be understood or even be of interest to the same degree as Damien Hirst or Dr Gunther Von Hagens. http://The Philosophy behind BODY WORLDS: About the mission, concept . One is an artist and one is a doctor.
By demonstrating, quite beautifully, how the public can be involved and interested in anatomy and physiological function, both these artists and scientists have managed to communicate effectively and demonstrated how conceptual art and innovation in science are not so very different.
Ultimately, scientists and artists alike change the perception of the world around us .
I think my point is that there needs to be more art in science and more science in art, all the time and I’m not the only one.
Pomeroy, Steven R. “From STEM to STEAM: Science and art go hand-in-hand.” Scientific American. Visit https://blogs. scientificamerican. com/guest-blog/from-stem-to-steamscience-and-the-arts-go-hand-in-hand/(Erişim, Nisan 2017) (2012).https://blogs. scientificamerican. com/guest-blog/from-stem-to-steamscience-and-the-arts-go-hand-in-hand/(Erişim, Nisan 2017) (2012).
Science and Art courses
I have scoured the internet and have found a few interesting courses for all levels, to promote a basic scientific approach that can be applied to all different faculties.
Scientific method is a logical, objective and balanced one. One where you overcome your own opinion in order to look and understand what the evidence is showing you.
If you are of the more artistic bent and don’t want a university level course this online resource from Berkley provides an essential base in scientific method from which you can move forwards:
http://berkley science conceptiual framework .
I know professionals who want to know more about the science around them, but don’t want the formal schooling, so this sort of course is perfect. Even the GCSE science levels these days are better informed and teach much, much more than 20 years ago.
University: Undergraduate and post graduate
Science and art is clearly not a new idea- but it seems to be one that is not taken on board nearly enough. There are now some university courses that teach science and art combined:
The BASc at UCL https://www.ucl.ac.uk/basc/, majors in a particular scientific field. You can also find courses under ‘Liberal arts and sciences’ , or postgraduately study for an MA at Central St Martins https://www.arts.ac.uk/subjects/fine-art/postgraduate/ma-art-and-science-csm. (I think my life would be different if these courses had existed 20 years ago).
... pressure needs to come from business and arts supporters alike lobbying the government with curriculum proposals to create cross-disciplinary programmes such as the innovative BASc in Arts and Science at UCL, or the BA/BSc Digital Media Communications taught by the Departments of Media Arts and Computer Science at Royal Holloway. It also needs schemes to encourage cross-working within small-to-medium-size enterprises as well as major businesses.
Land, Michelle H. “Full STEAM ahead: The benefits of integrating the arts into STEM.” Procedia Computer Science20 (2013): 547-552.
So whilst the movement is slow and it may not be enough to convince you about why art and science need to be co-taught is – here’s a question:
Was Leonardo Da Vinci, who died 500 years ago this year, a Scientist or an artist?
I use this, because you should all know who he was and he is the gold standard to me of what science and art should be. The renaissance was a soup of interesting and exciting innovations, flanked by money and power. Pressure was on, money was there and voila….you weren’t pigeon holed you just were what you were, using every tool and means available to you. Should we not be more like that?
21st Century shortcuts- personal favourite
Art is essential to science and science is critical to art. The next level?
Aside from writing this blog, Instagram, Twitter and (for the over 35’s Facebook) to disseminate science in an artistic way, I do have a fondness for memes. And crazy thought this sounds I sometimes think it is a most effective way of conveying a message. A lovely blog from as far back as 2014 said that the power of the meme lay in the fact that they could “Break tension & Offer shortcuts”.https://blogs.microsoft.com/ai/3-reasons-why-internet-memes-are-changing-the-world
Occasionally, my communicating with anyone under the legal drinking age has included a meme or two. Not only are they humorous, but somehow visually they can communicate so much more and more effectively.
BUT A note of caution
It’s a fine line when an old fart like me uses what I think are really funny memes to a teenager for teaching and they can fall spectacularly flat.
Scientists, for their own benefit and in order to make themselves and their work accessible to the world around them, need to become more creative in their approaches to communication and need to adapt in order to survive.
We risk losing our scientific art through automation of our work, and science is now progressing so quickly that we are unable to effectively bring anyone on our journey with us. Unless we change that.