Breaking Through

C.P. Snow stated in his 1959 Cambridge University Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” that society was increasingly divided by the humanities and the sciences, the expertise of scientists and “literary intellectuals” so unlike one another as to be almost wholly incompatible.

C.P. Snow stated in his 1959 Cambridge University Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” that society was increasingly divided by the humanities and the sciences, the expertise of scientists and “literary intellectuals” so unlike one another as to be almost wholly incompatible. F.R. Leavis’ spirited 1962 rebuttal, “Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow,” first delivered as the Downing Lecture at Cambridge and then reprinted in The Spectator, attacked Snow’s premise and criticized his methods. Literary London shook with the controversy, and the spectacle is still discussed and pored over by commentators today. Now, more than fifty years after Snow’s lecture, we find that these “two cultures” are still firmly ingrained into our collective unconscious. In fact, this past spring the Cambridge philosopher Onora O’Neill delivered the 2010 installment of the Rede Lecture, a talk entitled “The Two Cultures Fifty Years On.”

Besant / Metamorphosis #1

Besant / Metamorphosis #1

However, most of the commentary and controversy until now has taken it as a given that science and the humanities were mutually exclusive disciplines, and, importantly, disciplines which required, thrived upon, and cultivated distinct intellectual abilities and thought processes. This distinction more generally has recently been called into question, with many realizing that science and art are, in fact, quite similar. Both are dynamic, iterative, and solitary. Both are often independent. Both can involve a high level of uncertainty and, consequentially, risk. Both use unique man-made tools, with inherent physical limitations, for specific purposes. And both the scientist and artist thrive on keen powers of observation, which lets them observe their world and from it draw a dim signal amidst a sea of noise. But these are just outward indications of a deeper similarity that unites the process of art with the process of science, and that suggests the need for a re-evaluation of the decades-old debate over education in the sciences versus the humanities.

Like the artist, the scientist is most interested in telling a story that has not been told before, and must do so usually with only loose guidance from pre-existing knowledge. Every action is deliberate, yet the outcomes are uncertain. At its essence, there exists in the process a shared desire to create something profound. Gustav Flaubert captured this concept when he observed that “human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the while we are longing to move the stars to pity.” Although they use different tools, the process of science and the process of art are united by the notion of creating something which changes the way we think about our world. This process can be thought of as externalizing the internal desire to describe what it means to be alive. It is in this context that the above list of similarities in performance arises: as mere consequences of a common underlying process.

While it is commonly accepted that artists create, to see how scientists create is less obvious. It was in 1938 that Hans Reichenach first noted the distinction between a scientist in the context of justification versus a scientist in the context of discovery. It is precisely in the context of discovery where a scientist is seen to create, and where differences between the process of art and the process of science become blurry. It is here that science is most definitely an art. The act of discovery is profound: the focus is on exploration as the scientist attempts to assimilate new information which may challenge the norms of prevailing paradigms. At these times the creative demand on the scientist is greatest, as they navigate through a murky landscape of conflicting results and limited information to make sense of new observations. It is in the context of discovery where, as Thomas Kuhn argues, existing notions become non-existent and justification is secondary, so that the scientist is able to conceive novel ideas without constraint. Inevitably, the constraints are restored as the scientist returns to the context of justification, for it is only through rigorous controlled experimentation that their idea can be validated, the hallmark of the scientific method.

But if the essence of scientific breakthrough is creative, the way in which art is created can similarly be seen to rely on scientific principles. As mentioned above, most art and science evolve and mature in private, and respective public showings only occur much later when a finished product is ready for presentation. In this pre-presentation period both art and science involve cycles of attempt, failure, re-evaluation and re-execution, until the truths each are trying to externalize are sufficiently examined and presented. It is in this iterative sequence of execution and evaluation—sketch after sketch, draft after draft—that artists become scientists. Critical re-evaluation of performance or creation occurs against an external metric, perhaps an elusive and difficult to describe goal but one that is driven to and understood once reached nonetheless. Trumpet players famously lock themselves in dark closets and hold a single note for minutes to improve their sound. These “long tones” are certainly not acts of creative expression but a means for the artist to develop the human tools of their trade––the embouchure for a trumpet player, perhaps mixing colours for a painter, or flexibility for a dancer. The point is that successful execution of an artist’s skill and the creation of art requires considerable unseen and diligent development of material skill, something often said in the past to be a first characteristic of scientists. Now, however, we can view the development of material skill primarily in the context of justification (as opposed to discovery), a distinction that is applicable to both scientist and artist.

Caulfield / Body Plan #2

Caulfield / Body Plan #2

So, if in their essence, scientists are artists and artists are scientists, is a sharp distinction between the two a false one? Many creative endeavours can be seen to require scientific evaluation of performance and combine physical tools with artistically creative thought. Perhaps it’s wiser not to dichotomize in the manner of the last fifty years of debate. More practically, given that the Snow/Leavis controversy raised fundamental questions about education and what we expect it to achieve, perhaps schools might not automatically streamline pupils with creative talent into the arts, since a creative mind can also find great satisfaction and success in the sciences. The reverse is also true. Simply put, life can be richer if one sees the art and science in what are collectively understood as science and art.

Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art, will run January 4, 2011-March 30, 2011 at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta.

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