The Art of Science in Art

Where does science end and art begin?

Image Where does science end and art begin?
 What is it about a beautiful painting that moves us? Is it the same thing that touches a physicist when she looks at an elegant formula? Behind each creation there is precision, creativity, and the desire to construct meaning. But how exactly do we determine where science ends and art begins? And what happens when that distinction becomes blurred?
 
Thomas Connolley is a senior beamline scientist on I12, Diamond’s Joint Engineering and Environmental Processes beamline; he’s also a keen photographer. “One of my favourite pictures I’ve taken was of a plastic knife and fork”, he explains. “I did it using polarised light. The light is bent and refracted by the plastic into a multitude of colours and patterns, and it looks beautiful.”
 
But where did Thomas get his inspiration for this unique shot? Well, the use of polarised light to study plastic materials is a technique used in engineering. Different plastics interact with light in different ways, and with a technique called ‘photoelasticity’, scientists can use refraction to determine the level of strain on an object, pinpointing where the high stress areas are; this is really useful when you’re designing parts for cars and aeroplanes.
 
It was only by experimenting with refractive indices that our scientist come photographer was able to create this shot. So is Thomas’s photo science, art, or something in between? It’s an intriguing philosophical question: where does science end and art begin? There are many ideas to consider; points about intention, utility, and impact. But whatever your view about where the division lies, Thomas’s story makes it clear that there are certain skills, approaches and attributes that both scientists and artists share.
A Light Lunch
A Light Lunch

 

So why do we see the two pursuits as completely different? In many ways, the cultural separation of science and art is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout history, many great scientific figures were also icons of the arts and humanities. Take Leonardo Da Vinci, he turned his creative mind to both the Mona Lisa and the flying machine. Later, we see figures like Thomas Jefferson, who excelled in architecture and engineering, and Alexander Borodin, a prominent composer and chemist. But as each field became increasingly specialised, our ideas about what constitutes a scientist or an artist became somewhat more rigid, and opportunities for crossover became fewer.

And yet, there are many ways in which science and art intersect. Take, for instance, creativity. Thomas observes that a creative instinct is as essential to designing a jet engine as it is to taking a photograph: “As a scientist, you’re exploring the world and trying to solve problems. You need to have that spark of imagination so that you can maintain your curiosity and approach old problems in new ways.” And it’s not just creativity; observation, perseverance, and attention to detail are all attributes that artists and scientists share.
 
So could there be any advantage to mixing it up a bit, and bringing more science into art and more art into science? There’s no doubt that scientific experiments can produce some pretty magnificent images: from crystallised viruses to fluorescing chemicals, science can be a beautiful business. At Diamond, biology experiments provided an inspiration for artists who sewed mixed media images of brain cells, cancer tumours, and HIV for an art project called Designs for Life. Musicians have composed songs based on the noises made by the synchrotron; it has featured in novels; and photographers have curated exhibitions of Diamond scientists and their results.

 

So science can inspire art, but it also works the other way around. Thomas observes that scientists also stand to learn from artists, especially when it comes to communication: “There is this constant challenge in science communication: how do we explain complex concepts in a way that engages people? That’s where artistry can be really useful. Learning how to do things differently, in a highly visual, interactive, or articulate way – that can make all the difference.” Research can be fascinating and beautiful, and art can offer intriguing and novel ways to convey science in all its glory.

 

Albert Einstein famously remarked that the arts and sciences were branches of the same tree, both “directed toward ennobling man's life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom”. Einstein was saying that, whilst science and art go about in different ways, the end goals are not so removed. Perhaps we’re not doing ourselves any favours by keeping the two so culturally separate. Make of it what you will; but when it comes to science and art, perhaps there are more shades of grey than we think.
 
 

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