Erasing the Gap Between Art and Science

In 1959, speaking before an audience at Cambridge University, the English writer and scientist C. P. Snow lamented that the postwar emphasis on intellectual specialization had created "two cultures"--the scientific and the artistic. As a result, Snow argued, scientists were not equipped to understand the problems of literature or the humanities, while literary scholars and artists could not fathom what their scientific peers were up to. Neither side had any notion of how to begin talking to the other one, Snow complained, and what was worse, neither side seemed to care.

Today, 42 years after it was first proposed, Snow's thesis continues to be relevant--though only in some quarters, and not without resistance even there. It is most irrelevant in the general culture--that vaguely defined arena where ideas are consumed as commodities and where workers in the arts and applied sciences alike ply their trades. There the gulf between science and art has been steadily narrowing over the last 2 decades, thanks mostly to the advent of inexpensive, easily used personal computer technology that makes available intuitive, learn-as-you-go tools that presuppose little or no formal training of any kind.

With the spread of such tools, classically trained composers are crafting symphonic pieces on laptops; writers are composing novels and books of poems electronically; visual artists are exploring digital forms of expression, learning about fractals and the complexities of programming code along the way. Today applications that once seemed to belong to the fringe, from e-books to special effects in films, are part of the cultural mainstream, and the blending of art and technology produces ever more startling results, it seems, with every passing day.

The two-cultures division is also increasingly irrelevant among humanistic scholars. Once-subjective enterprises, such as anthropology, literary criticism, and art history, are taking on an increasingly scientific (or, skeptics might say, pseudoscientific) cast thanks to the technology-driven techniques that have come to dominate them; even classicists today rely on Internet-based lexicons and collections of epigraphy. Racing to keep up with this trend, museums and humanistic think tanks increasingly devote their attention to work that erases disciplinary barriers between the arts and sciences, from computer software to "smart buildings"; from abstract paintings to interactive texts.

The digital revolution has done less, however, to draw scientists closer to the arts, even though many scientific researchers are as comfortable with Photoshop as they are with, say, TeX or Access. John Maeda, a professor in MIT's renowned Media Lab, considers this an unfortunate state of affairs. Maeda believes that scientists, especially those that are at the beginning of their careers, would do well to take a closer interest in the processes of artistic creation. "There are far more artists looking to understand science than there are scientists trying to understand art," he observes. "That's too bad, really, because technically oriented people have wonderful opportunities these days to be at the edge of discovery in the arts."

Charles Falco, a professor of optical sciences at the University of Arizona who also serves as a Guggenheim Museum exhibit curator and has lately been collaborating with the English painter David Hockney on studies of Renaissance optics, concurs that scientists have much to learn from the arts. "It's sometimes difficult to convince nonscientists that there are such things as absolutes and laws," he says, "and it's sometimes difficult to convince scientists that the arts have anything to say. But really good artists and really good scientists have more in common than most people realize. Their process of discovery is the same."

Maeda, a pioneer in interactive graphics ("I made a lot of the little flashing things on your computer that won't go away," he says, "and for that I'm now repentant"), specializes in research in human-machine interactions, research that sometimes takes the form of seemingly whimsical studies in "wearable computing" and futuristic toys, and that has lately led to the development of kinetic sculptures that serve as complex models of living biological systems. His training is itself a powerful refutation of the two-cultures split; he holds degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, and art, and he encourages his students to range broadly among disciplines in their own work.

Getting them to do so, Maeda says, is rarely a problem. Most young people, he believes, are naturally inclined to both art and science; they enter the university with a lively interest in books, film, and music, and they can also take apart a computer, understand a mathematical formula, and deconstruct programming code with ease. For such talented youngsters, the thought that science and the arts should be separate has little meaning--until, that is, the academy takes charge.

"The academic system forces students to be either scientists or humanists. It doesn't recognize that the same spirit and some of the same techniques underlie both art and science," Maeda argues. "We often hear about cutting-edge work that's done by pairing up artists and scientists, and I get tired of hearing about the necessity of this kind of teamwork. There's no reason that a scientist and an artist can't be one and the same person. Our goal should be to produce Renaissance people who take a cross-disciplinary approach to problems, da Vincian people who are interested in everything and can do everything."

Reforming the academy to bridge the two-cultures division, if not to erase it, is not a simple proposition. Too many parties on both sides of the divide have interests in maintaining disciplinary boundaries, and thus the status quo. If reform is to come, it will be by training students, beginning at the elementary school level, to be generalists so well grounded in fundamental learning, so scientifically and numerically and culturally literate, that distinctions between the arts and sciences will be meaningless to them. "Those are the people," Maeda says, "who will be in demand." Those are the people, Falco adds, who will create the "exciting interactions" of the future, bridging disciplines effortlessly.

Producing them is a lofty ambition, but by no means an unrealizable one, and of far greater value than any number of one-off collaborations across party lines. Until then, as long as the academy enforces arid distinctions, Snow's two cultures will endure.

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