The great divide

Is there a useful connection between science and art, or do these two kinds of human endeavour have nothing at all in common?

Charles Percy Snow earned a doctorate in physics at Cambridge in 1930, and after working in molecular physics, became a scientific adviser to the British government during the Second World War. He also tried his hand as a fiction writer, with mixed results, until his sojourn in what he famously termed "the corridors of power" inspired one of the most famous intellectual essays of the last century. In 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution' (1959), he complained of an unbridgeable gulf between science and the arts.

Snow argues that scientists don't sufficiently appreciate the value of literature, poetry and painting, while the cultural and political elite don't care enough about science and engineering.

He is concerned that government decisions in an increasingly technological age are made mostly by people with little understanding of the issues. Artsy intellectuals, he says, are "natural Luddites," while scientists "have the future in their bones". He wonders what kind of education system might be developed to bridge what he calls the "two cultures".

Critics said that Snow's logic was flawed, and the tone of his writing was offensive and patronising to artists and scientists alike, not to mention those politicians who refused to recognise Snow's caricature of them.

Half a century later, his ideas still have the power to provoke angry debates. In July 2002, Lord Runciman, celebrating 100 years since the founding of the British Academy, delivered a speech calling for an end to the two cultures divide, while describing Snow as "intellectually crass, politically naive, historically short-sighted, and inept".

That same year, Lewis Wolpert, emeritus professor of biology at University College London, attempted to lever the two cultures apart once more. In an article for the Observer, he responded angrily to an exhibition, 'Art with the Brain in Mind', at the Wellcome Institute in London:

"The current vogue for believing that art and science should be brought together is wrong. A work of art is capable of many interpretations, but there is only one correct explanation for any set of scientific observations.

"In what sense can a painting be right or wrong? Art contains the personal views of the artist, but the feelings of scientists are absent from the final understanding of a process. We should stop pretending that the two disciplines are similar."

Bridging the gulf

Even as Wolpert wrote those words, Oxford University scientists and sixth form art students met at the Rutherford Appleton Physics Laboratories to look for "artistic inspiration in science", with the intention of "testing the two cultures divide". It was typical of many such events that take place every day, all around the world, when artists are invited to walk through the gates of scientific establishments.

The instinct that some kind of chasm needs to be bridged just won't go away. There's no shortage of artists keen to explore the meanings, imagery and social impact of science (and would the modern novelist or dramatist who hasn't at some time or other been inspired by quantum uncertainty or cosmology please stand up?).

The same bridge across the divide is being built by scientists. For instance, the University of Edinburgh has signed a long-term deal with the US National Science Foundation "to develop new tools to visualise complex scientific data. The aim is to improve the quality of computer images, by adding texture, icons and three-dimensional elements. We will draw inspiration from painting, sculpture, drawing and graphic design to apply these techniques to scientific visualisation".

But is it art?

The language of a scientific paper is deliberately dispassionate. Emotional or creative phrasing might lead to ambiguities, and since the guiding principle of science is that published results should be testable by exact repetition, the facts of an experimental finding must be laid out as objectively as possible.

In contrast, what major work of literature, what fine painting or worthwhile movie, could come about by the application of such stark rules? Ambiguity, openness to interpretation, subjectivity: surely these qualities are found in art, but not in science?

Yet, when we look at the beautiful visual representations of data that can often be found among the dry science papers, it's hard, sometimes, not to detect a whiff of creativity.

In the case of the countless beautifully hand-drawn and coloured scientific illustrations that were common before photographs and computer graphics became so widespread, it would be naive to say that artistry wasn't involved.

Today, much of the visual content of science comes direct from the laboratory instrumentation itself, and it's easy to assume that when electronic machinery delivers the images, the uncertainties of human creativity are neatly avoided and only pure factual science remains. Does this leave any room, then, for art?

In the case of electron microscopists adding colours to their otherwise grey-scale images of bugs and pollen grains, the answer is "Yes." Tina Carvalho of the University of Hawaii's electron microscope facility is far from alone when she admits: "I use Adobe Photoshop to paint my insect images with a mouse or digital pen and pad, sometimes working on each individual hair.

"The colours are a product of my imagination, because scanning electron microscope images usually have little or no colour at all."

Something as straightforward as the angle from which a specimen is scanned may be determined by aesthetic choices as well as the needs of science. Even if the aim is simply to communicate as much useful information as possible, the microscopist's taste for a fine image - their sense of artistry - will play a role.

Tuning the tones

In 2004, the singer and performance artist Laurie Anderson accepted a year-long commission as artist-in-residence for NASA.

On one occasion, she watched a Hubble Space Telescope team adding false colours to represent non-optical wavelengths, such as infrared and ultraviolet, using various shades of red, purple, blue and green. "Why did you choose those colours?" she asked. "Oh, because it looks nice that way," they told her.

There was no dishonesty involved. Colourless, shapeless qualities like energy or electric charge can legitimately be translated into visible entities.

Don Eigler, a physicist at IBM's Almaden Research Centre in California, is renowned for his landmark images of atoms and quantum waves, made with a scanning tunneling electron microscope (STEM) and other related systems, allied to powerful computer visualisation software. He suggests that physics and science have something to offer each other.

"I pull art into my physics world, either in how I handle an image, or in the appreciation or design of some laboratory set-up." Arbitrary choices, settings on a dial, can sometimes adjust values of contrast and colour that are not hard-set in stone by the underlying nature of the scientific data itself.

When an image of a quantum mirage captured by Eigler and his team appeared on the front cover of Nature magazine in 2000, Eigler said he wasn't too keen on the colour scheme chosen by his colleague Hari Manohoran to differentiate between electrical and magnetic forces. "There's no accounting for taste - my taste, Hari's taste or the public's - is there?" An artistic choice had been made in the preparation of the image, even while the text accompanying it used mathematical expressions that left far less room for manoeuvre.

Rise of the Philistines?

Most scientists are perfectly aware of how beautiful and aesthetically appealing their work can be. They have a desire to share the beauty of what they find in nature, and many of them understand that scientific notation isn't always the best way of getting their message across to people who aren't so fluent in that language.

Pictures, on the other hand, speak to all of us. They are one of the bridges that span the two cultures divide, and there is room enough in the world of human expression for science and art to converge.

But Snow still has a point. Our world is run by politicians who (with honourable exceptions) display a dangerous lack of knowledge about the sciences. Come to think of it, many politicians don't seem to know much about art either.

When the US Congress got wind of Laurie Anderson's invitation from NASA, and her modest honorarium of $20,000 for a year's work, Republican representative Chris Chocola led a successful campaign to halt the programme. "NASA should not be spending taxpayer dollars on a performance artist," he said.

There was a time when Congress was only too pleased to support NASA's enlistment of reputable artists to make occasional works inspired by space. In 1962, Hereward Cooke of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC wrote a letter of invitation to a number of prominent artists, inviting them to tour NASA facilities and create works based on their impressions. He was eloquent about the need for both art and science in any technical endeavour.

"When a major rocket launch takes place, more than 200 cameras record every split second of the activity," he wrote. "Every nut, bolt and miniaturised electronic device is photographed from every angle. But the camera sees everything and understands nothing. It is the emotional impact, the interpretation and hidden significance of these events that lie within the scope of the artist's vision."

Well said…

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