Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand

From the Scientific American blog, by Steven Ross Pomeroy | August 22, 2012 |  assistant editor for Real Clear Science, a science news aggregator. He regularly contributes to RCS’ Newton Blog. As a writer, Steven believes that his greatest assets are his insatiable curiosity and his ceaseless love for learning.

Su Song pic - Art meets science in this early star map drawn by Su Song. (public domain)
Su Song pic – Art meets science in this early star map drawn by Su Song. (public domain)

In the wake of the recent recession, we have been consistently apprised of the pressing need to revitalize funding and education in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. Doing this, we are told, will spur innovation and put our country back on the road to prosperity.

Renewing our focus on STEM is an unobjectionably worthwhile endeavor.  Science and technology are the primary drivers of our world economy, and the United States is in the lead.

But there is a growing group of advocates who believe that STEM is missing a key component – one that is equally deserved of renewed attention, enthusiasm and funding. That component is the Arts. If these advocates have their way, STEM would become STEAM.

Their proposition actually makes a lot of sense, and not just because the new acronym is easy on the ears. Though many see art and science as somewhat at odds, the fact is that they have long existed and developed collaboratively. This synergy was embodied in great thinkers like the legendary Leonardo Da Vinci and the renowned Chinese polymath Su Song. One of Carl Jung’s mythological archetypes was the artist-scientist, which represents builders, inventors, and dreamers. Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.

Camouflage for soldiers in the United States armed forces was invented by American painter Abbot Thayer. Earl Bakken based his pacemaker on a musical metronome. Japanese origami inspired medical stents and improvements to vehicle airbag technology. Steve Jobs described himself and his colleagues at Apple as artists.

At TED 2002, Mae Jemison, a doctor, dancer, and the first African American woman in space, said, “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin… or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

By teaching the arts, we can have our cake and eat it, too. In 2008, the DANA Arts and Cognition Consortium, a philanthropic organization that supports brain research, assembled scientists from seven different universities to study whether the arts affect other areas of learning. Several studies from the report correlated training in the arts to improvements in math and reading scores, while others showed that arts boost attention, cognition, working memory, and reading fluency.

Dr. Jerome Kagan, an Emeritus professor at Harvard University and listed in one review as the 22 most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, 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.

“Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world,” Kagan said at the John Hopkins Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit in 2009.

With this realization in mind, educators across the nation are experimenting with merging art and science lessons. At the Wolf Trap Institute in Virginia, “teaching artists” are combining physical dance with subjects like math and geometry. In Rhode Island, MIT researcher Jie Qui introduced students to paper-based electronics as part of her master’s thesis exploring the use of technology in expressive art. Both programs excited students about science while concurrently fueling their imaginations. A potent blend of science and imagination sounds like the perfect concoction to get our country back on track.

Celebrated physicist Richard Feynman once said that scientific creativity is imagination in a straitjacket. Perhaps the arts can loosen that restraint, to the benefit of all.

Speak of the (Meatloaf) Devil

Talking with a friend about parts of a beast we cannot eat, the friend reported lamb or cow brain. A couple of us remembered mother crumbing and frying said brain when we were children growing up on the land. Then that disturbing scene from Silence of the Lambs II (Anthony Hopkins), came clearly to mind. Well if you’ve seen the movie, you will know the scene I’m talking. When I offered it to the group, as something that might put a person off eating brain, one of my friends immediately replied, “But what about the end of Meatloaf in the Rocky Horror Movie”. All I can say is, though I remember Meatloaf’s demise in that movie, that was still the era of the more subtle take. Special effects are so good now that all damage to the human body looks completely real and confronting. I think a Hitchcock movie would have been more implicit but in just as horrifying way. Perhaps what we imagine is worse than what we know. Which reminds me that we are primates, given to higher alert to the tiger that might be lurking in the grass, than the tiger clearly seen prowling the base of our tree.

Anyhow, I can never remember whether Meatloaf survived the 80’s, but every now and then he pops back on the radar.

Under the Staircase

Kimia Ferdowsi is a young Baha’i artist and filmmaker. Currently a candidate for an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, she is a 2009 winner of the NYAXE Gallery Competition. Below one can access a short film Kimia has created about the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran, with an emphasis on the death of her grandfather at the hands of the Islamic Republic soon after the Iranian Revolution.

Under the Staircase from kimia ferdowsi on Vimeo.

In a prologue to her movie, Kimia asks three questions:

“Conflict and strife are hardly rarities in this writhing world of ours. Within every border and beneath every roof an afflicted humanity cowers. How do we begin to categorize the burden we all directly or indirectly share?

The gauge that distinguishes these crises from each other, it seems, could derive from the victims’ response to oppression. It’s easy to love thy brother. Is it possible to love thine enemy?

Hatred, enmity, resentment, revolution. Such are the desperate responses we’re used to. Such is all the oppressed has to work with. How often does a community, denied the right to have a right, fight back with service?

One need seek no further than the beleaguered Baha’is of Iran.

Inglourious Basterds creates distasteful resonance.

Finally watched ‘Inglourious Basterds’ on DVD, last night. I found myself liking the movie much more than I thought I would. As few movies do, I found it had the effect of making me trawl back over the movie to find the thing that appealed to me. The opening ‘Chapter’ creates a terrible foreboding that ends with a truly horrible scene but is capped by an momentary exhibition of psychotic insanity. And, gradually, looking at the patterns of characterisation, I came to realise that it is in the dissonance of the characters and within the play of scenes, that I had found the appeal. The combination of ‘mumma-boy’ soldiers and psychotic killers is everywhere in the movie. The comic rendition of the Nazi Hierachy seemed initially a trivialisation but juxtaposed against scenes of ‘normal’ people, made for a disturbing atmosphere. This morning I came to the conclusion that the movie is a caricature of a lot of humanity. This is a movie about every conflict we humans have on small and large scales. Quentin Tarantino, in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ has become a master satirical cartoonist.

Luhrman’s “Australia”

Finally saw “Australia” last night. My wife and I made a special trip to Cairns to see it for our 23rd wedding anniversary. We both liked the movie. The cinematography, especially the opening scenes, was wonderful. The story line had a bit of everything – drew some adrenaline, more than a little anger, a few laughs, and, I must admit, a few tears. However the movie suffered on a few fronts. At about the 2 hour mark, almost simultaneously, my wife and I stirred in our seats and declared, ‘This is a bit long’. I think the problem lay with the script as a whole. This is a story that uses a real event (the bombing of Darwin during WWII, and a real situation (the removal of Aboriginal-white mix children from their Aboriginal mothers), to provide an environment for an old ‘western’ genre formula about a tyrannical wealthy landowner doing every nasty deed to extort another landowner out of their property. A mischief which is continually thwarted by the handsome rugged ‘drifter’ until ultimately, – well I won’t give the ending away. This genre then applied a heavy dose of magical thinking around the role of ‘kadaitjcha’ men in Aboriginal culture. The main characters were disappointingly caricturised, pointing to a lack of real experience by the script writers about the ‘pommies’ (English) who did come to Australia over the 20th Century and the international experience of wealthy Australians and that relationship with their English counterparts. This left the characters in very 2-d form. I think a rewrite of the whole script, filling out the characters, letting the story tell itself (scrap the written narration), editing out some aspects eg the issue around the boy evading police and the death of ‘daisy’ could have been much reduced or written out, humanising the ‘kadiatjcha’ man character (a problem in itself with the lack of understanding about ‘normal’ traditional Aboriginal life in Australia). In some ways, the tyrant in the movie almost pulled it off, with some real displays of anger, desperation, understated menace. But overall it was a bit ‘fairy-flossed’. Thank god for Brandon Walters who gave us some of the best laughs and was a real delight to watch on screen, although his cuteness was just a bit stretched out.
I recommend “Australia” as a pretty good romp. I think the future of Australian historical stories can be benchmarked against “Australia” for what it failed to bring. Any movies which mimic this and don’t go that extra distance in providing ‘thicker’ story, deserve to die at the box office.