Art and Science
Closer than you think



Sidney Perkowitz, Department of Physics, and
Juliette Stapanian Apkarian, Department of Russian and East Asian Studies

Academic Exchange September 2000
Contents Page

"New Mouths . . . Is
interdisciplinary research draining the strength of disciplines?"

 

"Taking Center Stage? The role of the performing arts in Emory's intellectual life"

At this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the presenting scientists did something different as she discussed her laboratory research on pain. Interspersed among her slides of high-tech scans that indicate the sites in the brain where pain signals are registered, she showed works of art portraying people in pain-the most famous among them the psychic agony conveyed in Edvard Munch's The Scream. These images were immensely effective in reminding the audience and the scientist herself that the study of pain does not exist in a scientific vacuum but relates to human need.

The impact of the pictures would have been very different if the talk had been about the literature of pain or about its religious meaning, rather than about laboratory findings. It was the unexpected intersection of powerful visual art with rigorous scientific analysis that caught the attention. Although academics use the phrase "Arts and Sciences" to indicate intellectual breadth, we do not really often associate the arts with the sciences-and apparently for good reason. Paintbrushes and sculptors' chisels are not high-energy accelerators and scanning electron microscopes, nor is the writer's desk the physicist's laboratory. And whereas emotion counts in art, we try to exclude it from science.

But despite these differences, there are underlying similarities. Scientists and artists are both engaged in the same fundamental task: trying to make sense of the world as they observe and participate in it. Both are engaged in creative activity. And both may employ the same tools, from simple pen and paper to the seminal uses of computers in art and in science. Although Leonardo da Vinci is probably the best-known example of the artist-scientist, many talented figures throughout history have connected artistic and scientific thought, with results that are mutually illuminating. When that illumination flashes, it is a stunning example of the power of interdisciplinary approaches.

That interdisciplinary connection is a prime motivation for the show "Science and Art" we will be presenting in Emory's Schatten Gallery, during the spring semester of 2001. It will display ways that the two areas converge within research and teaching as carried out by Emory faculty, providing insight into how science and art are both enriched when they are brought together. Perhaps even more important, a course before the exhibition opens will let students see for themselves that science and art can inform each other. Supported by a grant from the University Teaching Fund, teams of students in the sciences and in the studio arts or art history will express scientific ideas through artistic means, or use science and technology to convey moments of artistry, producing works that will become part of the show.

Such opportunities help address a serious educational need growing out of our scientific age, which is to show students that science is not isolated from the surrounding culture. Science is now starting to answer the eternal questions: How did we get here? Where are we going? How long will we be here? Powerful as the scientific answers are, students should be able to place them into broader context and experience other valid ways of knowing, among them art. To show both Vincent van Gogh's stunning painting Starry Night and NASA's dramatic image The Pillars of Creation--a photograph of the remote and enormous clouds of matter that give birth to stars--is to show students that art and science each say something essential about our place in the universe. Art can challenge scientific assumptions and explore moral questions that arise from scientific research. Our growing ability to shape biological destiny has raised pressing issues, but even the fifty-year-old moral legacy of the atomic bomb has its artistic impact, as in the play Copenhagen that recently opened to critical acclaim on Broadway.

It is not always easy for academics to accept that art and science can play mutually illuminating educational roles, for the products of artistic invention do not so easily fit into the time-honored definitions of teaching and scholarship. But within the framework of Emory's commitments to the arts and the sciences, we believe the two areas can be richly mingled in many teaching situations without losing scientific rigor or artistic meaning. Some examples from our own teaching illustrate how the connections can be made:

In the course The Russian Avant-Garde (taught by JSA), students learn about the Russian constructivist art movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Lenin himself considered technology of the greatest importance for the new Soviet society, and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky hired a specialist to explain to him the fine points of Einstein's then-new Theory of Relativity. Visual artists presented works designed to explore new meanings of time and space revealed by Einstein and others.

In the freshman seminar Envisioning Light (taught by SP), students learned about the science and the aesthetics of light. Along with hearing about the quantum theory of light, how we communicate over optical fiber, and how the human eye works, they attended an
opening at an Atlanta gallery of neon art, heard a lecture on color in art given by one of our art history faculty, and attended a demonstration of theatrical lighting at Theater Emory. They were encouraged to write papers blending the different aspects of light, resulting in such efforts as an analysis of how technological progress in film-making has affected the mood and style of what we see on screen.

Other examples of the interface with art can be found in every scientific area: in mathematics and theoretical physics, the role of aesthetic ideas such as "symmetry" in the development of elegant theories; in chemistry and physics, the science behind the centuries-old history of artists' pigments; in neuroscience, the process of visual cognition in the perception of art; in psychology, insights gained by examining artworks made by troubled people. And from the artistic side, the interface extends from the development of perspective in painting and the role played by scientific illustration in the growth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science, to contemporary connections such as the current installation of laser art in New York's Guggenheim Museum, carried out by noted electronic artist Naim June Pak.

Relationships between art and science are wonderfully dynamic and diverse. We recognize that much divides these two areas of inquiry, yet the quest for knowledge and understanding draws art and science repeatedly and inevitably together in ways that can enlarge Emory's views of itself and what it offers its students, faculty, and community.