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Science and the arts - a connection?

  1. Jan 12, 2007 #1
    Science and the arts -- a connection???

    On January 4th James Palmer, a professor of optics at the UA, died from Cancer. What was interesting about Dr. Palmer was that he was not only an outstanding engineer (including winning the NASA Group Achievement Award), but he was also an outstanding musician. His musical credentials included performing with Herbie Hancock and as a backup singer with the Brubeck Quartet. In addition he performed in locations from the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie hall.

    Having said that, my question is this this: Is there a connection between science/math and the arts?

    It seems that there are so many outstanding scientists/engineers who are also outstanding artists (including Einstein), that I wonder about a connection. I wonder what you all think?

    This is important because I see the American educational system cutting the arts in favor of “the basics” like math. While I of all people believe that math is important, could we be killing the goose that laid the golden egg by killing off arts education? What do you all think?
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  3. Jan 12, 2007 #2
    SelfAdjoint once noted that scientists seem to dabble frequently in the arts while artists steer clear of the sciences. I've been posting alot on an art forum and it seems to be true that most of the people there, with a few exceptions, are indifferent to the sciences.

    The fact that alot of scientists are interested in some art is probably simply because almost everyone is interested in some art. Love of music is pretty much universal: just about everyone's taken lessons on one instrument or another, and it's also pretty common to find that people have played with writing some kind of poetry or song lyrics. People who enjoy some kind of painting or drawing are also remarkably common, though there are fewer of these than the musically minded.

    So I don't think there is a special connection between science and art. People in general are fond of art and some of them happen to be scientists.
  4. Jan 18, 2007 #3


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    I’d like to read more of what SelfAdjoint said. I’ve tried but haven’t found it.

    But, Zooby, why is the fact that one is more often enjoyed than the other a reason to think no connection exists? I don’t see that because one, science, being less enjoyed, still exists because of obvious, practical advantages, and that the other continues to exist despite a lack of obvious advantages, is reason to deny a connection.

    A possible connection could be that advances in both rely on creative capacities. An article http://physicsweb.org/articles/world/16/4/2/1 on this talks of the creativeness of scientists, and helped me to see how important a role imagination can play in scientific advance. (I had thought in science there were answers just waiting to be found.)

    This creativity could be related or the same. A number of great philosophers have included two elements (by various names) involved in imagination- intellectual understanding and sensual enjoyment. More, some advocate the synthesis of the two as enabling creativity, each requiring the other to advance.

    If this were the case, any further speculation as to why it were, would again need to entertain notions of a very close, mutually beneficial relationship between the two.
  5. Jan 19, 2007 #4


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    It has been shown that kids that take music early in their education tend to do better in math. It would be interesting to see if many science oriented people find music/arts before or after their technical education.
  6. Jan 19, 2007 #5
    There wasn't any more. He simply mentioned the imbalance in passing. I thought it was insightful and made a mental note of it.

    interested_learner's logic was:

    To paraphrase: since so many scientists enjoy the arts, can we not suspect a connection?

    My counter to this logic is that if we look we might find that many scientists very much enjoy pizza. Should we therefore suspect a connection between science and pizza? I don't think so, since nearly everyone enjoys pizza.

    As for creativity and science: the kind of creativity that can make an artwork bloom is really not the same kind that is of use in science. Artists seek to create fictions that are personally expressive, interesting, and satisfying. The creativity a scientist employs is quite different and more rigorous, and aimed at finding ways of quantifying and dealing with objective situations, not personal, idiosynchratic fictions. Einstein and Feynman could "think outside the box" to find and employ unusual tools to analyze a situation. We can characterize this as "creativity", but it isn't the same thing as the dream-like creations of Dali, or the equally surreal scenarios painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those latter are very personal and idiosynchratic, and say everything about the mind of the artist, while defying, distorting, and fictionalizing natural forces. The "creativity" of a scientist is not about expressing personal fictions but about using imagination to create new tools, or employ old tools in a new way, to deal with, and help understand, the non-fictional dynamics of matter and forces.

    The kind of creativity scientists may employ is, also, not limited to science. Anyone who experiences an insight about how a particular subject might be differently approached to useful ends is doing the same thing. And, really, everyone does that. Everyone problem solves using their imagination. Some are poor at it, some are great, but it's the same activity in any case.

    So, I don't see any special connection worthy of note specifically between science and art.
  7. Jan 22, 2007 #6


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    Funny that you, Zooby, with your beautiful drawings, and I who paint, should be discussing creativity in a science forum, but to me this is heartening as I think there is benefit for art in this sort of reasoning.

    Quote- To paraphrase: since so many scientists enjoy the arts, can we not suspect a connection?

    The op mentioned outstanding scientists as outstanding artists. Certainly if the science and art were run of the mill, it would be harder to argue a connection. Outstanding, to me, means achieving something that most are unlikely to achieve, most probably by being highly creative. I think interested learner was saying that it seems an unlikely co-incidence that there are numerous examples where such extreme ability in both fields flourishes together.

    Quote- My counter to this logic is that if we look we might find that many scientists very much enjoy pizza. Should we therefore suspect a connection between science and pizza? I don't think so, since nearly everyone enjoys pizza.

    I get carried away with the boundaries of art, but sadly, anyone exhibiting brilliance as a pizza connoisseur, maybe by imagining in the taste of it attributes as yet unrecognised by the sensual and intellectual abilities of ordinary pizza fans, has gone unnoticed in world not yet ready to accept the fine art of pizza appreciation. Hence we would never know whether there were any particularly worthy pizza enjoyers, let alone whether excellence in pizza enjoyment and excellence in science ever met. Or quite simply, possibly pizza lacks the qualities that offer great insight.:smile:

    Quote - We can characterize this as "creativity", but it isn't the same thing as the dream-like creations of Dali, or the equally surreal scenarios painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those latter are very personal and idiosynchratic, and say everything about the mind of the artist, while defying, distorting, and fictionalizing natural forces. The "creativity" of a scientist is not about expressing personal fictions but about using imagination to create new tools, or employ old tools in a new way, to deal with, and help understand, the non-fictional dynamics of matter and forces.

    I do agree that science and art are very different fields, employing mostly different tools, skills, or talent, etc., - methods- one sensual, one intelligent. I’m differentiating these methods from the creative imagination.

    Quote - The kind of creativity scientists may employ is, also, not limited to science. Anyone who experiences an insight about how a particular subject might be differently approached to useful ends is doing the same thing. And, really, everyone does that. Everyone problem solves using their imagination. Some are poor at it, some are great, but it's the same activity in any case.

    It may seem trivial, but that everyone solves problems to a degree is a great capacity. I also agree that ‘anyone who experiences insight about how a particular subject might be differently approached to a’, (I might change this to, ‘successful’), ‘end is doing the same thing’. I just suggest that this same thing, this experience of insight, is gained by using some, or a synthesis, of each method to be successful. That some individuals achieve extreme success in both fields, I think, adds some weight to this idea.
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2007
  8. Jan 22, 2007 #7
    The OP mentions only two scientist/musicians by name and then asserts, without substantiating the assertion, that there were many "outstanding" scientist/artists.

    I don't know the music of the man mentioned, but chances are the adjective "outstanding" is not to be taken too seriously. He can have played with Herbie Hancock without being a Herbie Hancock himself. Even if we stipulate he was a Herbie Hancock in his own right, he remains anomalous, and not representative of the level of accomplishment of other scientist/artists, who weren't, properly speaking "outstanding".

    Einstein could play the violin but wasn't an "outstanding" violinist, merely a "gifted" amateur.

    -American History

    Einstein played the violin, Feynman played the bongos, Galileo made some excellent renderings of the moon he saw through his telescope, the man mentioned in the OP played with Herbie Hancock, but what was Milikan's art? Did Planck leave us some landscapes I don't know about? Did Niels Bohr play the piano? Any paintings by Pauli? Rutherford etchings? A Heizenberg symphony? A Newton Cantata? A play by Faraday? Oersted watercolors? Gauss woodcuts? Pascal ballet suites? Joule pen and inks? Bernoulli sculptures? Maxwell novels? Bolzman bagatelles? Doppler sonatas? Ohm poems?

    If we look we'll probably find they all dabbled in some art, because just about all humans do, but if the assertion of the OP were true we'd expect authentically outstanding examples of art from just about every scientist one could think of.

    It's always surprising to find out someone known for one thing also has skills in another area (Einstein played the violin well? Wow, that's interesting!), and that can lead to throwing out the adjective "outstanding" a bit hyperbolically. By professional standards all the amateur scientist/artists were, in fact, probably "run-of-the-mill": if they attempted to make it as art professionals they might hold their heads above water, but wouldn't stand out.

    If we look we're going to find that there are masses of people in all professions and occupations who are "gifted amateur" artists of one kind or another on the side. This is just not limited to science. Enjoyment of art is, really, a basic human quality. Just about everyone has tried some art, and there are huge numbers of people who aren't scientists who've become "gifted amateurs". As far as I can see, serious persuit of science does not engender any particular interest in the arts beyond what you find in the general population.
  9. Jan 22, 2007 #8


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    I think the only reason people take any notice is that they believe the stereotype that scientists are geeks who are single-mindedly focused on just science. We are people just like everyone else, and that means we have a variety of other interests outside our work. Some enjoy the arts, others sports, some both, some are fascinated by studying history, etc.

    One requirement for developing a passion for science is that we must be inquisitive about the world around us. There's no reason that inquisitiveness shouldn't include things like music or painting or photography or theater.

    And, as Zooby stated already, any well-adjusted person has interests and hobbies outside their professional work. That's bound to include the arts, among other things.

    Art is also something that one can be a complete hack at and still enjoy. Anyone can pick up a guitar and pluck at strings and say they enjoy playing the guitar for a hobby, even if the result is horrendous sounding, or apply paint to a canvas even if it looks like the finger-painting of a 3-yr old. It's a little harder for someone to call science an amateur hobby without a good deal of studying. An artist still might pick up a pop-science book and read it, but they might be more likely to list the hobby as reading, not science.
  10. Jan 22, 2007 #9


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    Leonardo DaVinci
  11. Jan 23, 2007 #10

  12. Jan 23, 2007 #11


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    Yes, but a pretty good one. :wink:

    I think it's easier for a scientist or academic to have artistic inclinations than someone artistic to be academic.

    I know a lot of doctors and scientists/academics that either play an instrument or draw/paint and do it with equal enthusiasm to their academic endeavors.
  13. Jan 23, 2007 #12

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    My neuroscience idol, Erich Jarvis, almost became a ballet dancer:
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2006/november/songanddanceman.php [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  14. Jan 23, 2007 #13
    I'm not sure what this means.

    Most artists don't seem to be academics, but neither do most people. I am surprised to find there is a healthy contingent of academics at the art forum where I post. Not scientists, but definitely academics. There's a high awareness of classical literature and theater among them, and even some who know basic physics and chemistry well. Most are just people who've taught themselves to paint and who don't even know any art history to speak of.

    I believe it. But, like I said, this seems to be true of people in general.

    I sit and draw in a Cafe most days, and people come up to me all the time to comment on my drawings. I always ask them if they do any art and the majority say yes, or that they have in the past, at least. Many people I meet have two or three things they do, say, drawing and dance, or writing and guitar, or pottery and poetry. Ones who confess to no art will generally admit they tried one thing or another in earnest at some point but gave it up 'cause they felt they were no good at it.
  15. Jan 23, 2007 #14
    Here's the reason most scientists who also persue an art don't become accomplished in the art:

    Becoming really accomplished at an art is too demanding. To seriously persue both is to spread yourself too thin.
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  16. Jan 23, 2007 #15


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    Zoob, you are an extremely GIFTED artist. People here also consider you an intellectual. I don't know know how much art history you know, but it sounds like a lot.

    My art work is second to your's and I used to think I was good.:blushing: I would like to watch you draw to see if our styles are similar. The end results look similar, but with yours showing much more life.
  17. Jan 24, 2007 #16
    Oh, I'm definitely an academic type person - Ah dun been to colige - but I'm not any sort of scientist, just a handwaver.

    As I recall you said you don't use any kind of grid or proportioning aid. Without those, I'm sunk. I'm very poor at drawing quickly from life. I can really only draw well from photographs because they can be measured precisely and they will sit still indefinitely. I'm very slow. I spend days on a drawing.
  18. Jan 24, 2007 #17


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    This is really not that surprising. Part of a formal education involves at least some required coursework outside your major, which is intended to broaden your knowledge of other fields (but without great detail). This "sampling" of other courses often reveals areas of interest that someone might not have acquired had they not had someone force their eyes open. So, having a lot of academics at an art forum makes sense. Though, I'm curious, how many have the same passion for art as an artist, and how many approach it more academically? I mean, wanting to learn the history and just appreciate what others are presenting, and approaching their own study of it very technically?

    But, music, especially, is very accessible to a lot of people. We all listen to music of some sort, and while there are all sorts of ranges of qualities of instruments, even a somewhat poor person can obtain some sort of instrument, or sing, which requires no special equipment. Music instructors are readily available in many societies, or other people who know how to perform will help you learn. There are also plenty of books to teach yourself to play instruments. Not that they will turn you into someone ready to perform in a symphony orchestra, but you can learn enough to accompany the kids on a sing-along around a campfire. You'll find a lot of people all over, in all sorts of professions and jobs and walks of life who enjoy music and can play an instrument or sing in a choir. There's no reason to think scientists should be excluded from this. It's also not surprising that if someone is very talented in both that, in this day and age, they'd choose science as their profession and music as their hobby rather than the other way around. While there are star musicians who make gobs of money, as a whole, it's not a well-paying profession, and frequently not steady employment. So, when someone is making a decision of how to support themselves on their talents, they're more likely to choose the one that will be the more stable profession.

    Arts like painting are less common because they require quite a bit of investment and space to pursue. Canvases are expensive, brushes and paints need to be routinely replaced and start adding up, and it's messy, so usually people want a dedicated space for their painting where they can put down floor covering and don't have to worry about splatters, and want good lighting and ventillation, so the basement or garage are out of the question, etc. It's not something you just pull out into the living room at whim like you can with many instruments.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't entirely dismiss that artists have no interest in science, but it's not something as easily accessible to the general public for them to have an understanding at a sufficient level to converse with scientists about it (then again, while I enjoy singing, I'm not going to try singing for someone who is a stage performer because they'd probably cringe or laugh themselves silly over my pathetic attempts at singing).

    Also, of course there are some examples either way. In any large population of people, you'll find some notable exceptions...Da Vinci is of course one of them that comes to mind...but that's why he's notable and in the history books, because he's a great exception to the norm. For every great scientist with a talent for some form of art, there's another who is tone deaf and incapable of painting more than stick figures. Nobody advertises what people can't do when they are winning awards for their achievements, though.

    And, yes, Zooby, I know this is what you've been saying all along. It just seems some aren't getting it, so I'm trying to reinforce that.
  19. Jan 24, 2007 #18
    The academics I'm refering to on this art forum are the same people who are most serious about their art. Most of them are currently professional artists of some sort. They've formally studied technique and also art history and have a good liberal arts education. They would passionately object to the notion that an academic approach and passion about art are mutually exclusive.

    All true.

    Also true. I myself stick to drawing, which can be done anywhere, requires less investment in materials, and creates no particular mess.
    Alot of people enjoy a book or program about science without also picking up much formal understanding from it. They come away with interesting trivia like the dinosaurs being destroyed by impact with a meteor, but they aren't moved to figure out exactly what irridium might be.

    Da Vinci is anomalous in all ways. It is important to note that he wasn't a scientist who was also an artist. He was an artist first and foremost whose desire to be a better artist lead him into downright scientific methods of observation and fields of study
    . His interests in optics, the dynamics of flight, hydraulics, etc grew out of intense direct observation of natural phenomena with the aim of drawing and painting them more comprehensively. He was obsessed with the problem of collapsing three dimensions to two and pondered why a mirror image of a scene, which he considered must be two dimensional since a mirror surface is flat, was just as hard to copy as the actual scene. This lead him to an exhaustive study of optics and seeing. All his endeavors started out as solutions to art problems. He often took them so far they left the realm of art and became engineering, and science matters.
  20. Jan 24, 2007 #19


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    Good points, Zooby. On reading the op concerning outstanding ability, I immediately thought of Leonardo, as evo suggested, Pierro Della Francesca, Alberti, Brunelleschi, Durer, and a vague notion of others - Danti, Del Monti, Brook Taylor, and assumed this trend carried on into the modern age, and into other arts. I don’t consider Leonardo, and others, anomalies(!), but an indication of how natural the connection, given the time and education to do both. When saying Leondardo’s science was born of his art, does that lessen the possibility of a connection?

    If it is not the case that there are many who had shown that they were highly creative in the fields relating to intelligence who also created critically acclaimed works of art, I’d said it was harder to argue, in that it would be very tedious and less obvious, but didn’t mean it would be impossible!:smile:
    It involves complicated issues of art valuation and again, artistic boundaries. For one, who’s to say that Feynman wasn't an outstanding painter. On what basis is Mozart judged as better than Madonna? Further, what person creating art or creatively appreciating art isn’t being highly creative, or outstanding? It also involves the history of distinctions between the two, e.g. music had been considered a mathematical science.

    I looked at some of the scientists you mention. Many show a deep understanding of art, despite modern divisions splitting science and art and the time necessary to develop both sides.

    Einstein 'once said that had he not been a physicist, he would have been a musician: "I often think about music. I daydream about music. I see my life in the form of music.'

    Feynman did play the bongos and painted and drew, exhibited and performed. Originally he hadn’t had formal lessons in these, but later on took lessons.

    Maybe unwittingly, Pauli used the aims of the surrealists, inspiring a classic work- ‘ Over the next months Pauli produced "over a thousand dreams and visual impressions," which were later analyzed by Jung and formed the basis of one of his major writings -- Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy'.

    Newton, Boyle and Brahe practised the art of alchemy. I don’t know much about this, nor of anyone receiving acclaim for this art. It took much more of Newton’s time and energy then evidential science, ‘..now immersed himself in it, copying by hand treatise after treatise and collating them to interpret their arcane imagery. Under the influence of the Hermetic tradition, his conception of nature underwent a decisive change.
    Newton's interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. He lived at a time when there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his 'theory of gravity’.

    On Heizenberg: ‘As a kind of final glory to this long musical life, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra fulfilled his 70th birthday wish to let him play a Mozart piano concerto for once in its original orchestration and with professional musicians. It was not about succeeding in a new career as soloist, but rather he was tempted by the opportunity to participate in, what he termed in the autobiography the work of reinterpreting and conscientious attention to detail,(14) so that the thoughts and thematic content of the kings of music such as Bach or Mozart could be captured and rendered.’

    Also, ‘ Wherever he went, he would seek out and find opportunities to play with others, friends and colleagues alike. In his letters to his parents he gives accounts of music making in Leipzig and Berlin, with Max Born in Göttingen, and with the Bohrs in Copenhagen, or on his trip to America in 1929 with colleagues in Boston and Montreal.’

    Faraday appreciated art enough to have a couple of Rembrandts in his collection.

    ‘Attracted more by the brilliant classist, G. Heyne, than by the mediocre mathematician, A. G. Kästner, Gauss planned to be a philologist. However, in 1796 came a dramatic discovery that marked him as a mathematician.’

    Pascal is also noted as an influential author of theological works.

    Maxwell shone in literature and the sciences, his published poetry was critically acclaimed.

    I thought Planck was on your list - ‘Planck was extremely gifted when it came to music: he took singing lessons and played the piano, organ and cello, and composed songs and operas. However, instead of music he chose to study physics’

    The others I haven’t heard of and haven’t looked at and this post is getting too long! There is an enormous amount written about a connection, including the words of scientists that I’m not doing justice to.

    From what I’ve said, you could still say from all this there is no strong connection, as these individuals listed appreciate art as much as the next person, and I disagree with that. Even from this pithy offering, I see greater appreciation and understanding than I do in the normal course of life. It has given me a lot to think about, thanks all.
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2007
  21. Jan 25, 2007 #20


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    Maybe it's just me, but it seems all of the scientists I've dated (and there have been more than a few) played musical instruments and some had taken lessons for years and were quite passionate about their music.

    Humanino has his PHD in experimental particle physics and he is a musician, he even played in a band while in grad school if I remember correctly. Unfortunatley the rumor of the tight leather pants might have been an exaggeration. :tongue2: I dated one of the top atmospheric scientists in the US and he regularly plays guitar and sings at clubs. My friend bitjumper is a computer scientist that dances. He could be a professional dancer. :bugeye: It's his passion and he spends LOTS of time dancing.
  22. Jan 25, 2007 #21


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    There's obvious connections between drawing/painting perspective and a mathematical mind.

    Also, in music, when I was younger I played a brass instrument to a high level - I also found it particularly easy to sight read pieces, which I think is connected to my math ability.

    However, from time-to-time, I've also picked up the guitar - while I can learn chords etc. I can never learn to play the guitar in the same way I did wind instruments - the structured foundation never seems to be there for me :confused:
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