Science and art were not always two separate entities. Historically, times of great scientific progress occurred during profound movements in art, the two disciplines working together to enrich and expand humanity’s understanding of its place in this cosmos.
Only recently has a dividing line been drawn. Science, it often seems, is perceived as a rigorous pursuit of knowledge; art, on the other hand, as a less rigorous pursuit of expression. It’s a superficial and false dichotomy, and misses some of the fundamental similarities between the two endeavors: At their best, both art and science are the ultimate embodiment of intuition, curiosity and creativity.
It’s just that the rules for each are a little bit different.
“Great scientists are like great artists. They have a vision of the world,” said Don Ingber of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, during the opening session of the 2015 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative conference. “They see something different and try to communicate it—we just have to do it so that other people can repeat it and other people can advance it.”
Indeed, rather than orbiting along endlessly separated pathways, art and science often converge. Sometimes that convergence occurs in projects or experiments; sometimes it’s in a person. Take, for example, Alexander Borodin, the 19th-century chemist and classical music composer. Or, to state the obvious, Leonardo DaVinci. There’s also the entire “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, sponsored by the American Association for the Advance-
ment of Science, and origami-inspired folding spacecraft designs, among many other examples.
Or Ingber, the scientist whose game-changing insights into the behavior of cells were prompted by a sculpting class he took as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s.
“I went back to the cancer lab and they were treating cancer cells with a drug and it caused the [cells’] shape to change, and I said, ‘Oh, the tensegrity must have changed!’ And the postdoc looked at me and said, ‘What’s that?’” Ingber recalled.
In truth, transformation and innovation often happen most explosively in the space where art and science meet, where institutional walls are broken down, where it’s acceptable to be uncomfortable with uncertainty. That’s why this year’s NAKFI conference created space for the intersection of these disciplines. Appropriately, this year’s meeting was in some ways unlike those in previous years—it incorporated art installations set up throughout the Beckman Center—and, as with all experiments, some of the results were spectacular and others were somewhat less lustrous.
SCALING THE WALLS
One of the themes that emerged during the 3-day conference was the idea of toppling barriers and constructing nontraditional solutions.
Half of the conference participants were scientists and half were artists. As in previous years, participants were divided into small groups and asked to address such problems as using art to influence environmental monitoring, and music and dance to engage human collaboration in different ways.
Each challenge existed squarely within an aesthetic and design framework—considerations that are often missing from normal scientific inquiry but that often contribute to uniquely successful innovation. As attendees were reminded at the very start: “The answer to every ‘How will we?’ question is always the same: Innovation,” said C. D. Mote, president of the National Academy of Engineering.
“How will we provide fresh water and food for the planet? Or cure cancer? Or found a colony on Mars?” he asked. “Innovation.”
Different synergies emerged as the groups wrestled with the breadth of their assigned challenges. That’s because testing interpersonal dynamics while attempting to whittle a massive question into something solvable is undeniably tricky.
“It’s been fascinating to see the mix of people and how they work to-
gether,” said the Wyss Institute’s David Edwards, chair of the conference steering committee. “Of course it’s led to new and sometimes frustrating conversations, given that artists and scientists all have different ways of expressing value, or understanding value.“
Edwards spoke at the start of the conference about the difficulty of encountering institutional walls—or barriers that are not so much real as vestiges of the old guard. In those situations, he said, sometimes the only way to make progress is to push on the walls until they break.
“We often do it on the sly because nobody in our institute wants to know about it,” Edwards said. “They want us to be innovative; they just don’t want to know about the holes in the wall.”
Developing a shared language, or a shared way of expressing value, is key to a good outcome within a team. But that’s not the only thing that matters. The best synergies occur in groups where it’s safe to grapple with ideas and flail while seeking an anchor, to be uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. That’s when intuition and imagination take over. Several of the groups incorporated this kind of thinking.
“What you’re seeing here is really bringing people back to the origins of their creative life,” Edwards said. “You have such experienced people—their ability to dial back to kind of the innocent person that they were at one point, or to accept that they can be that innocent person again—let alone celebrate it—I don’t know if it’s limited, but there’s an inertial thing going on there.”
BEING COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT
Another recurring theme was confronting discomfort—of sitting with it, interrogating it and understanding it, rather than running away. It’s a concept that, even on its own, can make people squirm. Yet there’s much to be learned by plumbing the depths of discomfort.
Dancer and choreographer Liz Lerman challenged conference participants to do just that when she had the full group engage in what amounted to improvised dance among amateurs. Not only did she want participants to move in unfamiliar ways—and in close proximity to other people—she was asking them to leave the relative comfort of their minds for a short period of time and look to their bodies as instruments and sources of inspiration.
“Sometimes people are afraid to get into their bodies because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their minds,” Lerman said at the start of the ex-
ercise. “But we really want to think about a partnership between our minds and our bodies. Our bodies have incredible things to tell us.”
She started what was a simple walking exercise, having people move through space and introduce themselves to others around them. Then she asked them to interpret certain scenes or thoughts with their bodies. The next step was to teach those movements to a partner, who would then try and replicate the “dance.”
The movements people came up with were tentative at first, but as the exercise went on, they became bigger, more animated, and more organic. “The body knows and records things you’re not even aware of,” remarked one of the participants. “Not being surrounded by talking heads is really liberating,” said another. “The same gesture can mean so many things!” was another comment.
The twin ideas of turning to one’s body and embracing discomfort found homes in some of the work the challenge groups presented.
FROM DREAM TO PERFORMANCE
And in the end, the teams presented their ideas not only with traditional slides but a bit of performance art. Instead of sending one group member to the stage, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and 10 minutes’ worth of words, teams began to embody and demonstrate their concepts.
Some small, some large, these were all steps forward that had been conceived and realized within the shared spheres of art and science. And that’s exactly what the NAKFI conference was aiming for.
“We’re not asking you to tell us how to solve the world’s problems because we don’t really know,” Edwards said. “Nobody here is really smart enough to know what the world will be like 20 years from now,” Edwards said, presciently, at the beginning of the conference. “We’re about dreaming here. You can’t be a country of pioneers and not have been founded on this notion of the dream.”