The Romance of Science and Art

IN THIS ISSUE SEPTEMBER 2007

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein

Early in marriage we agreed that ours would be a life embracing both science and art – only not at the same time. We thought of them as lovers kept in separate rooms, ignorant of each other’s existence. That ménage changed for good, however, when we found them together in flagrante delicto. Bob’s first job out of graduate school in the 1980s was at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, a stunning piece of architecture home to equally stunning science. One Friday, precisely at 1pm, a new colleague of Bob’s urged him to the window overlooking the central courtyard. A distinguished-looking man identified as Robert Holley, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, strolled down the walkway. But never mind the laureate. A gorgeous woman accompanied Holley into his study. Every Friday! For three or four hours at a time!

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The Romance of Science and Art - Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein

Just what was going on? You can imagine the rumors. But they never touched the truth, as Bob discovered when he asked Holley about some striking three-foot high bronze sculptures of ballerinas in his office. Holley acknowledged that he himself was the artist. In fact, he admitted, he had converted his private study into a sculpture studio and spent every Friday afternoon there with…a model. Mystery solved? Well, almost. Sometime later, Michele had the honor of sitting for a sculptural portrait by Holley. Still prominent among our treasures, that bust reminds us daily of the intriguing puzzle that beckoned us to research all those years ago. [As it turns out, Holley was not an anomaly but rather an example of a general truth: many scientists have an affinity for art.]

The Institute itself provided more than one case in point. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, was married to the painter Françoise Gilot, a former muse of Picasso’s. Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for cracking the genetic code, was an amateur photographer; his wife Odile the professional painter who made the first scientific drawing of the DNA double helix. And Roger Guillemin, yet another Nobel laureate, hung watercolors in his office that he had painted himself. He later retired from research to become a cutting-edge electronic artist.

In fact, throughout history the best scientists have almost always been artists, craftsmen, musicians, or writers, too. Galileo made his own telescopes, drew the planets up close and personally described their movements mathematically. August Kekulé, the chemist who unveiled the structure of chemical compounds trained as an architect. His colleague John Dalton, still known for his laws of chemical combination, earned Wordsworth’s praise for his poetry. Louis Pasteur, the inventor of the germ theory of disease, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won a Nobel Prize for her x-ray crystallography, and Hans von Euler-Chelpin, a laureate in biochemistry, all brought talents in the visual arts to their scientific studies. And Max Planck invented quantum theory by applying the mathematics of vibrating strings to the analysis of electrons orbiting atomic nuclei. Not for nothing was he both musician and physicist; “the scientist needs,” he asserted “… an artistically creative imagination.”

The need Planck referred to is a real one. Contrary to popular myth, creative scientists are not just logicomathematical types, but empathic, intuitive artistic types. Einstein, considered by many the ultimate mathematical thinker, actually said that “[n]o scientist thinks in formulae.” He also said that “[t]he words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought.” Rather, his own thinking involved an associative play of images and feelings. “The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined,” he wrote. “The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type.” Only in a secondary step were these personal images translated into words and equations for communication to others.

Galileo made his own telescopes, drew the planets up close and personally described their movements mathematically

The point is, early in the creative process both the artist and the scientist utilize a common set of imaginative skills or tools. These tools appear to be early learned and readily honed in arts practice. In follow-up to a twentyyear study of 40 scientists, Bob and his colleagues found that those scientists involved in the arts were more likely than others in the group to produce highly influential papers. The more arts hobbies a scientist engaged in, the greater the probability of achieving eminence. Moreover, a scientist’s cognitive style usually matched the imaginative tools exercised in leisure. Those who pursued music or the visual arts, for instance, tended to be visual and kinesthetic thinkers in their science. No accident then, that Einstein was a musician -- or that he found scientific inspiration in his hobby.

Unfortunately, educators have largely ignored the role of arts practice in stimulating the imaginative skills necessary to innovative science. That oversight deserves redress. Who would suppose that body thinking, the muscular memory and expression explored by dancers or sculptors or painters, would be of benefit to a scientist? Yet Cyril Stanley Smith, one of the great metallurgists of the 20th century, purposefully studied the graphic arts to get at the structure of metals. He thus developed “a feeling of how I would behave if I were a certain alloy, a sense of hardness and softness and conductivity and fusibility and deformability and brittleness – all in a curiously internal….way.”

Or who would condone playing in the laboratory as a way to stimulate the imagination? Science is supposed to be serious, yet Alexander Fleming’ discovery of penicillin resulted from his hobby of “painting” with microbes on Petri dishes, just for the fun of it.

The Romance of Science and Art - Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein

And who would imagine that the purely sensual pleasure of experiencing natural beauty would be valuable to a scientist? Yet when asked what scientific problem led to his Nobel prizewinning work in chemistry, Alan MacDiarmid replied like an artist: “There were no scientific reasons whatsoever. My motivations have been driven by curiosity and color.” That aesthetic drive is common among scientists. When Bob asked Robert Holley what sculpting ballerinas had to do with his work, Holley replied that he searched for beauty in both.

Science woos art to its benefit. It is also the case that art often falls hard for science -- witness the many Nobel laureates in literature, including Bertrand Russell, John Steinbeck and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who trained in, practiced, or otherwise immersed themselves in the theoretical and practical sciences. No matter which discipline is on the make, the romance of science and art proves again and again a fulfilling affair. Of course, the sciences and the arts do have their differences. A painting’s unique contribution to society is not the same as that of a physical theory or a bio-medical technique. When it comes to imaginative process, however, scientists and artists share thinking tools and talents. Certainly, the best scientists are also artists at heart. Over twenty years ago, our experience at the Salk Institute flung wide the doors nominally separating science and art to reveal the passionate synergism of reason and emotion, analysis and intuition that powers all imaginative thinking. As a result, our own romance with science and art has been all the more complete.

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