This is a milestone blog post! It is the first in a series of posts that feature paid collaborative work between artists & scientists. Lifeology is striving to facilitate these SciArt collaborations & encourage scientists to invest in engaging SciComm with the help of artists. Stay tuned for more collaboration opportunities…
Written by Ushashi Basu
Illustrated by Patricia Tiffany
At the tender age of twelve, I posed an earnest question to my mother (who, I believed at the time, knew everything):
“Can I study creative writing and biology when I go to university?
Can I make a living by combining the things I love most?”
My mother, who has a bachelor’s degree in botany and her heart set in painting and fine art, replied, “If you dream big and work hard, why not?”
Not too long after, I read an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, and was awe-struck beyond comprehension. I couldn’t fathom how, as a man of a rather complicated field of science, he could describe life and love and humans and history with such eloquence. His depiction of the significance and insignificance of human civilization made me feel like I was reading poetry.
From there on, there was no looking back. Everywhere I looked, a scientific endeavor also seemed like an artistic one, and an artistic endeavor felt scientific in more ways than visible to the naked eye.
Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We use our predilection towards art and our linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our otherwise mundane life. In the words of author Ursula K. Le Guin:
“Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”
Quite naturally then, any form of artistic expression is a method of storytelling.
I believe that science – despite its complexities and jargon – is also a method of storytelling. With the help of elaborate experimentation, scientists aim to tell us stories of how the universe and life as we know it came to be. And these scientific stories are just a part of our grand tale.
Storytelling bridges a large gap between science and art, and we’re slowly discovering that the common ground between science and art is much larger than initially suspected. Considering this overlap of science and art, can we not try to convey scientific concepts in a way that everyone understands, irrespective of their age, background, and qualifications?
Science and poetry, for instance, provide a plethora of opportunities for us to understand and play with human nature and the world around us. They are both heavily dependent on metaphor and revolve around a lot of experimentation. While science uses experimentation to prove or disprove a hypothesis, poetry experiments with the different aspects of language to elucidate on the beauty of things around us.
With these similarities between science and poetry in place, we could, in theory, play around with scientific jargon and experiment with science and poetry to share the splendor of the universe.
After all, the mixing of science and poetry has been around since 5th Century B.C., where the first questions addressing the creation of the world were written in metric verses.
Science and theater are also more entwined than we imagine. For example, Life of Galileo, a play written by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, describes Galileo’s life and his scientific discoveries. Copenhagen is a play written by Michael Frayn and recounts the meeting between scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. Arcadia, a play that opened in the Royal National Theater in 1993, approaches subjects primarily concerned with science and mathematics, like thermodynamics, computer algorithms, and fractals. The play also aims to explore the relationships between the past and the present, order and disorder and certainty and uncertainty, and in doing so, depicts how modes of interpretation change through time and among people. In 2006, Arcadia was declared by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as one of the best science-related works ever written.
It is acclaimed plays like Arcadia, Life of Galileo, Copenhagen, and many other scientific plays that allow us to observe and talk about the themes of science through theater and the transfer of ideas between these two fields – not to mention the social and economic implications of scientific development.
Science is only as vast as we make it. There’s an uncountable amount of things that are yet to be discovered, and these things have the potential to profoundly affect humanity as a whole. Artistic expression beyond theater and poetry can also be used to communicate and present science in a way that is admirable by the public. Scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day, but all the knowledge obtained by scientists and their toil in getting these results wouldn’t be as impactful if we fail to communicate them in a way everyone understands.
Faith in science is more important than we realise and it is imperative that this faith is built not only in individuals but also in entire communities. Art, in all its forms, draws humans in and exposes a part of them that is not always visible. It lets us interpret and explain, art challenges our imagination. Again, according to Le Guin:
“Art is not only what makes us human, but humane”
So, with the magnetic pull of art in one hand and the importance of faith in science and the scientific method in the other, we must continually explore how science and art exist within one another, and use the latter to communicate the former. I’ve personally witnessed multitudes of scientists turned artists who strive every day to bridge the gap between science and society using an art form they excel in; these range from sculpting to embroidering to drawing on agar plates.
There isn’t any end to either creativity or science, so perhaps, bringing them together from the chaos that surrounds us will let us materialize scientific concepts in beautiful artistic renditions and in turn, do justice to the grand tale of the universe.