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The art of science

By Leonard A. Jason


Are art and science so different? At the deepest levels, the overlap is stunning. The artist wakes us from the slumber of ordinary existence by uncovering a childlike wonder and awe of the natural environment. The same magical processes occur when a scientist grasps the mysteries of nature, and by doing so, ultimately shows a graceful interconnectedness.

The intuition of the artist is no different from the hunches of a scientist. Both draw from unconscious realms where inner voices and soaring images provide sustenance for the imagination. Distractions and blind alleys often prevent the grasping of new visions or unraveling of complex social problems. Instincts and other primordial sources can break these intellectual and emotional barriers, and provide unparalleled insights into the vital nature of reality.

Both artist and scientist are revolutionaries, trying to change our perceptions and understanding of the world. Sometimes the fuel is no more than an outrage that “this must change”. Their paths often begin with a gnawing realization that something is askew in nature, which sets the traveler on a journey into the unknown to find what is missing, such as bringing about a more just and humane society.

Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) at the Winterthur Country Estate. Photo by Derek Ramsey, (c) 2007. GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.
The bane of artists and scientists is existing paradigms and ideologies, which represent conventional and at times suffocating norms. The status quo is interwoven with concentrated power, which can corrupt and defeat attempts to overthrow dominant values, philosophies, and social inequities. Financial benefactors offer rewards that reinforce a social hierarchy resistant to change. Therefore, when peering into the world with new lenses, like Galileo, radical new insights and discoveries are often challenged and opposed by those reifying mainstream standards and mores.

Artists and scientists use similar strategies and tactics to confront power structures that perpetuate institutional stagnation. Resources need to be identified and mobilized to buttress dreams and inspiration, to weather the assaults of critiques and forces inimical to new perspectives. Focus and commitment against seemingly insurmountable opposition can be sustained and validated by nurturing coalitions, including professional colleagues, friends, and family members. These cadres of supportive counter-change agents often provide a life-affirming antidote to the isolation and even animosity that can be engendered by radical transformative ideas and solutions to aesthetic and social issues. New professional and community coalitions can provide alternative sources of meaning by challenging existing reference groups and standards, and by validating innovative ways of approaching formerly intractable problems.

Suffice it to say, scientists and artists are often greeted with suspicion, disbelief, or even outright disdain for their offerings. Some retreat whereas others persist in sharing their new insights and knowledge in the public domain, regardless of the ego injuries and accruing disrespect. These prophets often feel as if they are lost in a dense fog or dark forest, but their enduring resolve to pursue an unconventional line of research or provide an alternative glimpse of reality represents a sustaining force. It is not fleeting happiness nor a drunken sense of wild abandon that uphold these commitments, but rather a deep sense of conviction and faith about one’s liberating vision.

Finally, learning, experimentation, feedback, and refinement are the backbone of both the sciences and the arts. Decades of painstaking analysis and observation were critical in the development of Darwin’s grand theory of evolution. The dissection of corpses and countless sketches polished and unleashed Michelangelo’s genius in capturing the human spirit in exquisite detail. Sweat and toil nurture the fertile imagination and fine tune the ability to peer through nature’s veil and uncover eternal truths that lead to Eureka moments of exhilarating discovery.

Spectacular gifts await us as we work to unravel the DNA of equality, faith, love, and compassion, and thereby usher in a world saturated with meaning, surrounded by creative rapturous forces. True research has a soul of an artist.

Leonard A. Jason is a Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology at DePaul University, and the Director of the Center for Community Research. For 38 years, he has been studying the interplay between creative forces and the process of community change. He is the author of Principles of Social Change (2013), published by Oxford University Press.

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Recent Comments

  1. George Allen

    Unique perspective

  2. Madison S.

    I really enjoyed reading this blog entry. I think the principles of the book were eloquently woven into a thought-provoking, ‘meta’ idea. I would compare it to saying that a strawberry and an apple are similar. They taste and look different, but at their cores, they are both fruits, as they both have seeds. This was a great read!

  3. Harriet J. Melrose

    I think it’s an excellent essay and an excellent piece of writing. I don’t agree with any of your parallels between art and science. Scientists and artists are very different. I think, in science and math, in the laboratory when trying to work out a new formula or axiom, there may be a muse-like experience in coming to the final piece of the equation, but in general I think scientists and artists are totally different species.

  4. John M. Majer

    There are striking parallels between art and science even though some choose to take a short-sighted perspective and appraise these as separate or opposing entities. Like art, truly inspiring science involves creativity, imagination, a sense of vision, mastery of various designs and methods, and the ability to connect complex and simple relationships. Both art and science should remind us that there’s always something lurking beyond the obvious.

    Proper or good science, like art, demands a mastery of technique, a rich understanding of what’s been accomplished, openness, and ingenuity. Like great art, science moves us, informs us in ways that expand our limits, challenges us to aim higher and improve/evolve while increasing our understanding of our existence and concern for others. Scientific methods (there is no single scientific “method,” just like there is no single way to paint!), like that of a painter’s palette, consist of many elements and requires creativity, perseverance, and dedication. Although science might be more “fact-based” because of its empirical grounding, the “how” and “why” associated with engaging in scientific inquiry clearly involves a value stance rooted in some sort of theory, personal choice, and human bias.

    I deeply suspect that there will be a renewed understanding of the limits of current scientific practice; much akin to the ceiling effect of the Renaissance era. The dawning of the technological era of the late 1800s gave us so much in short a relatively short period of time (think of all the scientific advances in the last 100 years), and I wonder if our sense of humanity will ever catch up with it. We once had devoutly religious persons, ardent artists, enlightenment in the form of literature, yet it seems as though some of my colleagues blindly worship science as if to say, “Arts and literature, religion, and politics is for suckas.” Time will tell.

    As broad disciplines, art and science exist within cultures involving expression, thought, practice, style, popularity, superficiality, and innovation. Dedicated disciples use their mediums in ways to push forth truths, virtues, and discover new frontiers; they are engaged and not merely compliant within their craft. Both scientists and artists require a healthy mix of imagination and skill in their works to push beyond conventional wonder, but few succeed.

    Certainly, it is easy for both the artist and scientist to settle for mediocrity, to imitate rather than to create, to showcase the mundane for personal gratification/validation among peers. However, it’s those transitional artists (e.g., Aitchison, Coltrane, Dali, Eno, Taratino, Bandura, Einstein, Ioannidis, Jung, Pavlov) who remind us of the importance of imagination and criticalness, and history tells us that such pioneers were not immediately embraced or initially well understood/received.

    It is no coincidence that political art and social justice research have been coexisting for some time, gaining popularity and acceptance since the pivotal era of the 1960s. This may serve as “evidence” that both art and science have grown from their traditional roots in ways to promote the welfare of others. Maybe it’s just my hunch.

    John M. Majer, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Psychology
    Harry S. Truman College
    Chicago, IL USA

  5. Julie Rosenbaum

    I enjoyed experiencing this. I like the expressive words in the blog that one might call overly passionate. There were lots of wonderful and thought provoking concepts in the blog. You could easily take any one of the paragraphs and turn it into another blog. It touches the heart and mind which leads to inspiration. I call that ‘Affective’.

  6. Callum Hackett

    I absolutely agree with this and have argued for it for quite some time – my only criticism would be that the most convincing points of comparison are somewhat vague and obfuscated by all the romanticised, purple prose!

  7. Doreen Salina

    This essay highlights the similar creative forces that inspire the conception and execution of both art and science. While most of us have been taught to think of research endeavors as neutral, objective processes, their development often begins as an expression of the scientists’ creative thoughts and beliefs, anchored within the framework of scientific theory and personal values. Artists also express these comparable thoughts and beliefs within the framework of the medium within which they work. Both efforts lead eventually to a tangible, defined product through which ideas are communicated. Both science and art are often controversial and, as a result, they inspire others to discuss and refine the ideas presented. This post illuminates core components that are involved in both creating art and the development of research ideas. After reading this essay, the overlapping points of intersection between art and science seem quite clear, although perhaps unexpected for some. This is a very thoughtfully written post.

  8. Dave Glenwick

    Interesting stuff. I’ve sometimes thought that underestimated are (a) the effort and discipline required of the artist to produce the final product AFTER the “aha” creative insight and (b) the creative insight/hypothesis essential to the scientist BEFORE the painstaking data gathering and analysis process. Appreciation of how both are required of both the artist and the scientist helps us see the commonality between them.

  9. Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa

    I am both a scientist and an artist. I have written extensively on the subject of science-art,science based art and science art interactions. But I am not comfortable with equating science with art as I know from personal experience they are not very similar to each other with regard to approaches. In fact I am getting bored to hear the same words -which are not very true- again and again. In their eagerness to promote science-art interactions, people are trying to equate science with art which is not correct according to several critics who are averse to the idea of these interactions – alienating these skeptics more. This is not the right way to develop science-art interactions. Science and art are separate subjects – I have listed these differences very clearly in some of my articles posted on my network – and we need different ways to deal with each one. The processes of scientific thinking and artistic thinking resemble each other at basic levels where the lines are somewhat blurred but go their distinguished ways as you proceed further into the fields. Scientific research itself has an in built creativity aspect but based on this you cannot equate both the subjects. If the approaches are similar, science and art would have evolved into a single subject and wouldn’t have become two special subjects they are. You cannot equate wild intuition of an artist with knowledge based guess work of a scientist. We must realize we can only bring these two subjects and people working in them together, build bridges, learn from each others knowledge and reap all the benefits the interactions bring. Any other approach is not correct according to me.

  10. Sarah Callahan

    This is a fabulous essay. As an artist and aspiring scientist, I completely agree with your parallels and associations between the two genres. I can attest that I use the same creative process whether I am working in a computer or a research lab.

  11. Ken

    I agree with most of your unique observations.

  12. Arny Reichler

    This is an impressive article. Professor Jason is a gifted essayist and not only thinks like a social scientist but writes like a poet. I would like to use this essay in the social science courses I teach.

  13. Jean Harrison

    A respected art historian commented that if Leonardo & Michelangelo were alive today they would probably be engineers. Certainly the drawings of Leonardo would suggest that the true engineering & artistic intention to “Get it right” overlap. In each field there is mediocrity, but also in each field is brilliance, innovation, a tribute to nature. Steve Jobs perhaps exemplifies both – engineer & artist. Passionate to improve the quality of life. Yes, I equate engineers with scientists. Theoretical scientists have to desire to understand and create through a new way of viewing. Artists much the same. Van Gough’s “Starry Nigh”t surprised some scientist because the artist got the colors of the planets right. That he did should not be surprising as he was an artist, a observer, a seeker. Many consider art today to be superfluous; but I have to disagree. A beautiful work of art brings, pleasure, joy & presents an understanding of something perhaps new to the viewer, who will perhaps see the world differently because of his perspective. Just as the work of the scientist will cause the world to see something differently.

  14. Sarah Callahan

    I am both a scientist and a professional artist. The creative and innovative processes that I use to work in either field are one and the same. Creativity and innovation do not hold biases against science, or any other field for that matter. Clearly, creativity and innovation are critical components to any kind of work product, from a painted canvas to a successful behavioral intervention or an evaluation of a drug trial.

    Frankly, I am leery of those so quick to segregate the subjects of science and art. Such segregation ensures operation within a very narrow scope; limiting one’s ability to break barriers, effectuate change, and evolve holistically. Moreover, it seems like a lot of work to have to “build bridges” between genres as others suggest. We wouldn’t have to build ANY bridges if people did not build any barriers.

    This is a fabulous, artfully written essay. Dr. Jason poetically highlights the parallels between the two fields. Well done!

  15. John Moritsugu

    I like it. I do think that it is provocative. In a small way, this reminds me of a book I am now reading, “College: What it was, is, and should be” by Delbanco. He writes about liberal arts and how good colleges help students question their world. He talks about how the “arts” at one time included math and other topics which would help students “discover” what the world was about. Anyway, I digress. Good first column. Look forward to seeing your book come out.

    John Moritsugu, Ph.D.

  16. [...] The art of science OUPblog [...]

  17. Kate Benson

    Both successful scientists and artists at their core have an ability to think outside the box, to see beyond the here and now, to rearrange their thinking so as to create a different outcome. Dr. Jason gracefully illuminates those areas where they intertwine and intersect.

    Perhaps even more importantly he reminds us of the community that sustains such individuals in their journeys.

    Bravo.

  18. Dave Glenwick

    Excellent point, well expressed. We need to appreciate how both creative insight and effort/discipline are necessary for both the scientist and the artist. Creative insights (if not original hypotheses) are inherent in the scientific process BEFORE the painstaking data gathering and analysis that follow, and discipline and effort are inherent in the artistic process required to produce the final product AFTER the “aha” creative insight. Often we underestimate the role of both of these for both the scientist and the artist.

  19. Laura Sklansky

    This is a beautifully written piece by Dr. Jason, and many replies elaborate on the similarities between the scientific and artistic processes. I also agree with those that point out the differences, as I feel there are differences between science and art that cannot be denied. Dr. Jason’s mention of the supportive agents such as coalitions, colleagues, friends and family members who can help transform the dreams of both scientists and artists into reality, should definitely be noted.

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