On Science, Art and Beauty – An artist’s soul in a scientist and vice versa

I very well remember a situation during the first two years of my PhD-thesis when a then good friend was confiding to me that she thought she would never be a good scientist, that she would much rather do something artistic and express herself through creating beauty. Well, we had a few drinks, talked about life in general and science, art and beauty in particular and in the end I could convince her that good science is a beautiful art and that scientists are much like artists in many aspects. She went on doing science and by now holds an advanced degree in science, is working in a beautiful city and is a more successful scientist than me. She also is very much into art; I spent many good hours in museums with her and she loved putting her creativity into different types of artistic projects outside of work; and I love using her as an example of how similar artists and scientists are. And they are! After all, both are often portrayed as rather peculiar personalities, either very introverted or very extroverted.

Artists are without any doubt creative. They create beauty through their work. They hold the power to make other people happy simply by having these people experience their creations. By looking at their beautiful pieces of work people become happy… truly, science has a long way to go before hoping to achieve something similar, right? Wrong! So wrong. The evidence is right out there. In the eyes of so many children in scientific museums everywhere, in their expressions when looking at a dinosaur skeleton or listening to someone explaining them a concept of nature. They grasp the beauty of nature. And they are happy. Understanding a scientific experiment can create happiness. (On a side note, also seeing an experiment work for the first time and answer the question the scientist was asking creates happiness for the scientist, much the same as finishing artwork creates happiness for the artist… unfortunately both happen not nearly often enough.)

Some science might very well need a complicated explanation to understand its merits, but then so does some artwork that is not readily accessible to everyone. But there are some classic pieces of art, both in science and in art itself, where beauty is evident and all it takes to understand either one is just a few minutes. But before looking at what is (arguably) the most beautiful paining and the most beautiful experiment in biology in the next post, let me finish the thought on artists and scientists.

Scientists are creative in their work as well. Same as artists, they use the tools they have learned to master to create new things. For artists those tools range from simple to complex (brush or chisel to digital high speed camera, and let’s not forget the body of dancers), just as they do for scientists (Bunsen burner or pipet to cyclotron). As a lot of creativity (and often training) is necessary to create fine works of art, so is it necessary to design experiments and create scientific setups that will answer the question the scientist is asking.

Another important similarity between artists and scientists is dedication. Both spend countless hours, weeks and months on their projects, trashing unsuccessful trials, restarting at the beginning. Both know the frustration of work slow proceeding, the feeling of being stuck and both face failure. Not every scientist is successful and has to abandon hopes for his/her career, neither is every artist. Yet, artists and scientists alike know the feeling of joy of completing an “own” piece of work and both know the feeling of late night work…. How bad it feels to bury an idea at 2 am but also how amazing it feels to complete it after a night in the studio/lab. Neither science nor art knows regular working hours.

Finally, besides creativity, another major force driving artists and scientists alike is curiosity. The difference is just what the curiosity is directed at. Artists are often very curious about themselves, about their feelings and emotions and their art is a way of expressing these emotions. Scientists on the other hand often direct their curiosity to the things around them – how does this work, what is that made of… very similar to a child taking things apart to see what is in them and trying to put them back together from the small pieces.

In my opinion what artists and scientists both are all about is creativity and curiosity as driving forces matched with dedication to not throw in the towel all the time. With these traits they will create beauty in the end. Artist’s traits, to be sure. But no less so for scientists. As artists love to see the beauty in their work, so do scientists love to see the beauty in the experiments they designed. Beauty in a beautiful science experiment though might not be as obvious as the beauty of a beautiful painting. The beauty of a science experiment very often lies in its elegance and simplicity.

I’ll try to show that with “biology’s most beautiful experiment” in the next post…

And for those who are still not convinced that scientists are true artist (and don’t live in Ivory towers but do know pop culture), have a look at this hilarious parody from the Zheng lab 😉



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4 Responses to On Science, Art and Beauty – An artist’s soul in a scientist and vice versa

  1. Maria says:

    Dear old friend,
    congrats on your new blog. I read it and have to point out a few things worth a thought or two.
    Art is not all about beauty and happiness. A lot of art aims at evoking negative emotions and/or letting go of them, as a way of coping with life. Similarly in science, there a lot of appealing ugliness out there… I wouldn’t call it beauty. It’s the understanding of the complexity that tickles our internal reward system.
    Secondly, I think your definition of happiness bundles together a lot of other subtly different things. I would say, when I finish an experiment or an art project I feel relieve, not happiness. Happiness to me lies in the process of expression – in the design of the experiment and in performing it (be it science or art). But it is a very personal experience… actually makes me go right now to ask my lab mates what makes them happy…
    thank you for your post!

    • Thank you, Maria.
      I agree that art can be about dealing with negative emotions, be that letting them drive the work or in the form of art as a means of dealing with them. Yet, in the end these things create a thing of beauty in the end. At the very least some people will find the way of experssing these emotions fitting and beautiful. I suppose “understanding the complexity” might be a synonym to “seeing its inherent beauty”. Or realizing the beauty of the setup, the thought that went into it. Which is, if I understood you right, what makes you happy. the beauty of your artistic/experimental design.
      Please do post a reply what your colleagues said!

  2. Maria says:

    I got some interesting feedback to my survey:
    What makes you happy in science:
    – predicting an outcome, the moment a hypothesis proves right.
    – happiness? Some people are astonished that you expect them to be happy at work.
    – the process of performing an experiment – overseeing the process, finding things/structures/patterns one is looking for
    – the process of designing an experiment
    – the positive outcome, getting an answer (independent of the hypothesis)

    As you can see there are at least 5 different approaches to enjoying science. I would say, everyone does it for one reason or another, but I would find quite a few who do it for a living (it’s just a job) or as a choice of lifestyle (kind of like being an eternal student). Same goes for the artists… I think it’s the true passion that distinguishes the people who find happiness in their favorite activity, be it science or art.

    As you your answer – I don’t think expressing feeling is in itself beautiful. It can be, for an external observer. But for the person who goes through hell to achieve catharsis it’s not the process of going through it that’s beautiful (so not the art itself) but the peace that comes thereafter… but that’s me guessing.

    • Thank you for conducting the survey, maybe I should ask here as well 🙂
      I feel sorry for the people that fall into the second category, you spend such a significant amount of time at work that you should be happy there.

      With “finding the way of expressing these emtions fitting and beautiful” I also meant external observers, sorry I wrote that in a non-clear way.
      Interesting thought about the peace thereafter. Definitely also exists in science… after waiting so long for a paper to get published that you are just happy that you are finally done with it.

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