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Symbiotic Art & Science: Can Artists Make Scientific Discoveries?

Washington, DC

Illustration of some of the thinking tools that artists and scientists share, derived from autobiographical material and interviews with highly creative scientists and artists, from the book Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World¹s Most Creative People by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein, 1999. Drawing by and courtesy of Robert Root-Bernstein ©

In our third blog post on the NEA/National Science Foundation conference, Symbiotic Art and Science, Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein discusses where the arts and sciences intersect. A professor of physiology at Michigan State University, in addition to studying the evolution of metabolic control systems and autoimmune diseases, Root-Bernstein has also researched and consulted on the creative process for more than 15 years. He also is an editor for Leonardo, a journal on the arts, sciences, and technology.

If we wish to promote the melding of arts and sciences, then there is an issue that was not formally raised at our conference that needs to be addressed: can artists make scientific discoveries?  While I do not want to argue that the answer must be “yes” in order for there to be useful collaborations among artists and scientists, it seems to me that the case for melding arts and sciences becomes significantly stronger if it can be proven that artists, working as artists, can make significant contributions to science.  While this task may seem impossible, there are, in fact, a large number of cases in which such contributions have been forthcoming.

Artists and musicians addressing scientific and technological problems invented chest percussion (musician Joseph Auenbrugger), the stethoscope (musician and artist Rene Leannec), the laryngoscope (singer Manuel Garcia), the first pill-making machine (artist William Brockedon), the principles governing tree growth (artists Leonardo da Vinci and, independently, John Ruskin), camouflage (painter Abbott Thayer), frequency hopping---a standard mode of encrypting electronic information (actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil), and the first artificial intelligence program (composer Lejaren Hiller).

Artists have invented several classes of novel geometrical objects and structures that have been appropriated by scientists in both life and physical sciences, including Wallace Walker’s “kaleidocycles,” Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and Ken Snelson’s tensegrity structures. The invention of pointillism by Seurat led directly to modern pixelization as well as to the color blindness tests. The Fauvists gave rise to false coloring, which is employed for data analysis in every science. Indeed, the “chip”---our modern integrated circuit---is made using mainly artistic techniques: the logic is embedded into the design by drawing, it is then printed using silk screen methods, miniaturized using photolithography, and the patterns are then etched into the chip. In other words, the modern world would not be possible without the insights and inventions of artists. We lose sight of this conclusion at our peril.

I will only mention in passing that the mirror-image argument can also be made. Scientists and engineers addressing artistic problems have been similarly productive, inventing electronic music, kinetic sculpture, moiré computation (a form of analogue calculating), color theory, elucidating how we hear and perceive sound, devising optical and aural illusions to explore cognitive functions, unveiling the mathematical principles behind origami, tiling, packing, fractal forms, and much more. Unveiling this rich cultural heritage of cross-fertilization between scientists and artists might itself be a worthwhile endeavor.

I want to emphasize in concluding that I do not believe that the goal of an NSF-NEA collaboration should be primarily, or even peripherally, to fund artists to do science or scientists to do art. My sole point in presenting this argument is to demonstrate that arts and sciences are, indeed, similar enough that the methods of one can usefully be employed to make breakthroughs in the other.

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