Can art shape scientific thought?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on some of the Creative Intersections work that’s beginning here at the RSA, in collaboration with Kings College London. The last session I took part in involved artists forming self-selecting relationships with academic specialists, with a view to future collaboration. One thing was immediately obvious (and quite interesting): the overwhelming majority of academics who elected to take part were scientists – in popular imagination, virtually as remote a discipline from art as you could imagine. The call-out had crossed all academic disciplines, but it was clearly scientists who saw a strong benefit in taking part – and scientists of all kinds, from healthcare to physics.
Why would this happen? There’s an obvious answer: Scientists, who sometimes find it hard to reach beyond the academic environment, are excited about the idea of working with someone who seeks, above all, to communicate, and whose traditional audience can be radically different from their own. Parallel to that, many artists see a benefit in this radical difference in discipline – they’re fascinated by new ways to explore and find meaning in the world around them, and jump at the chance to spend time with people who are at the cutting-edge of knowledge about what that world actually is. The Wellcome Trust’s Arts Awards aim to capture these mutual benefits in the sphere of biomedical science, and Ignite! use creative practice to facilitate science education in much the same spirit.
What really fascinates me, though, is the idea that collaboration between artists and scientists might move to the level where it actually affects working practice. Scientific breakthroughs radically overhauling art are everywhere (the effect of photographic film on painting is a good example), but this relationship is largely seen as a one-way street. Imagine, instead, a scientific breakthrough that happened because of art. This might sound silly to some people, but I’d like to elaborate with a personal experience:
I was taught that science and religion were fundamentally at odds – that science was no more compatible with religion than it was with the idea that Uri Geller could bend spoons with the power of his mind, or a belief in flying spaghetti monsters. These were all just wacky ideas, and fundamentally incompatible with scientific reason. I don’t want to get into that debate (I’ve heard a rumour that discussing the benefits of science vs. religion on the internet is unwise) but it contains a (perhaps unexpected) hidden premise: that ‘wacky ideas’ have no place in science too.
This is plainly wrong. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been told by scientists, with a straight face, that “the universe is actually shaped like a huge doughnut”, or “all points in time co-exist” or “space is like a balloon where all surface points are in contact”, or something equally, to any sane person, ludicrous. This sort of creative thinking is essential, and not just in order to convey theories to non-scientists like myself. When faced with a seemingly intractable problem, and an impenetrable dataset, starting from any wacky premise is a reasonable problem-solving strategy. It’s also what’s commonly referred to as ‘thinking outside the box’ – strategies that mitigate the kind of epistemological path dependency that increasingly complex scientific fields suffer from. The scientist who told me that the universe was “sort of shaped like a doughnut” did so because a few years ago, faced with a complex space-time conundrum, a scientist thought “what if it was shaped… you know, like… a doughnut?”, modelled it, and realised it (sort of) worked. It was a case of creative experimentation, and fitting the figures to the model ex post.
Kuhn and Feyerabend both deal with this, in different ways. But whilst these creative paradigm shifts are easy to understand in hindsight, I for one know very little about how that sort of creative space might be carved out within a typical science environment. Standing in the RSA’s Romney Room and seeing some eminent leaders in their field explaining how their field of study was ‘sort of’ like an object they’d brought in from home, and then afterwards talking excitedly about how they ‘never get to think like that’, I felt like I was on the road to finding out.
There’s not much time for real, far-out, blue-skies creative thinking in science these days, partly because the benefits are so little understood, and partly because the costs (a day spent not doing ‘proper’ research, say) are significant. But if we can tie this sort of thinking up with some of the more tangible, easily-understood benefits of arts-science collaboration, and make space for a bit of research within that, then there’s a good chance we can make the case. The benefits seem almost impossible to measure (how can we show a breakthrough in ten years’ time began in a workshop now?), but they’re certainly felt by scientists. The difficulty isn’t showing that the arts can benefit science – the difficulty is showing how.