Science and art are one and the same.

I’ve been amusing myself watching videos taken on board the International Space Station on YouTube, interviews with astronauts and whatnot, and videos from the cupola, the dreamlike window-on-all-sides on board the station that faces down toward the world and through which so many beautiful images have been taken and subsequently shared.

I’ve harped on this before (pun not intended but I’ll take it), about the pointless polarization of art and science, championed so relentlessly by artists and flouted equally relentlessly by scientists.

I’d encourage anyone to poke around in those videos and discover how many astronauts are artistically inclined. In one interview, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman mentions her flute and discusses the things done by other astronauts to express themselves artistically — everything from painting to photography, music, and writing. (Her husband is an artist, a glassblower.)

And once again, I keep coming back to the extremely common opinion shared by many artists that “the sciences are not personally expressive,” as stated by one of my otherwise favorite musicians, Mark Wood — who, to be blunt, doesn’t know what he’s talking about here. I’ll try to address where I think this attitude comes from, and why it’s so incredibly wrong.

A lot of people remember science from their 5th grade classroom, where “science class” consisted of word problems and lists of numbers to add and subtract. “Science” in that view consists of answering questions and being marked right or wrong. No creativity, no judgment, just yes you got it right or no you got it wrong. And most of the questions asked frankly stupid and boring things like, “You are driving in a car that gets X miles to the gallon. You want to drive Y miles away. You have a Z-gallon tank that is three-quarters full. How much gasoline will you have left over when you arrive?”

Now, many career artists and musicians don’t exactly follow through past this point. They pass exactly as many “science” classes as they need to before ditching and never opening a math textbook again, so they never learn what science really is:

Science is figuring out which questions to ask in the first place.

Are you right? Are you wrong? Who knows? Maybe in 100 years, someone else will determine whether you asked a worthy question or not much less whether you answered it well. There’s a good chance you won’t be around to find out, though.

Answering boring questions about whether Farmer Jones can plant corn before beans on Tuesday is not science, any more than scales and etudes are music. They are simply the monkeywork that you need to do before you can even get near doing science. Like music, you’d better find some form of satisfaction in the monkeywork if you want to make it to the higher altitudes of either.

This is related to what I said earlier about how you need to find satisfaction in making each tiny little stitch if you want that monstrous lace bedspread. Similarly, you’d better get a zing of pleasure from those idiotic word problems if you want to make it to the Big Stuff, the more rarefied scientific life where you’re dealing with the origin and fate of the universe. Expecting to get more than a cursory “ZOMG liek woah” out of whatever Stephen Hawking said about the universe last week without powering through years of those crappy word problems is a lot like being disappointed because your two months of cello lessons didn’t enable you to play that cool Bach prelude.

It’s also worth noting that many people also confuse scales and etudes with music and come to the equally erroneous conclusion that music (especially classical music) consists of turning oneself into a trained monkey who hits levers and pushes buttons in the right order very quickly, and that one either does it “right” or “wrong.”

I’m about to get mildly judgmental now, so strap in.

The thing about most scientists is that we seem to be able to make the adult judgment that just because our childhood music lessons weren’t very creative, that doesn’t mean that music is just scales and etudes. Artists however, seem quite content to wallow in the 5th grade attitude about science for the rest of their lives, which mystifies me.

As I said above, science means figuring out which questions to ask. It’s only until one spends years and years practicing answering canned questions that one has a prayer in hell of answering the non-canned ones that one has come up with on one’s own, questions that are probably so nebulous that you can’t even tell until a century later whether they were worth asking in the first place, can be answered, or were answered in an edifying way. Those word problems that Wood probably hated in school were nothing more than the scientific equivalent of Sevcik, Hanon, and Popper. Yeah, they’re boring as hell, but only someone who never goes beyond them can conclude that they comprise the whole of musical experience.

And figuring out which questions to ask is incredibly personally expressive. One’s entire concept of how one relates to the universe drives these questions for pete’s sake, how they are approached, conceived, contemplated … everything. Absolutely everything.

And much like music, the first thing one wants to do when one conceives of a new question to ask is share it with others.

At bottom, both science and art are centered on how one sees oneself in relation to the universe, how one understands one’s relationship to the universe, how best to share that with others, and what new doors that realization might open. Also like music, there are no right or wrong ways to do it, only ways that are more or less edifying. (Now engineering? Oh yeah, there’s right and wrong there. If your machine blows up or falls over, you did it wrong. But even there, you learn things from your screw-ups.) And also like music, you may not know whether what you did was truly worthwhile until about a century after you die. And like music, people who do it tend to think and live it 24/7, without pause, for as long as they (we) live.

So basically … any artists out there who think math and science aren’t avenues for personal expression? Remember how quick you are to correct the misconceptions of non-musicians that music, particularly classical music, consists of just pushing the right buttons in the right order and getting marked right or wrong.

Science and art are exactly the same.

I think this is why so many scientists are also artists. Why so many artists are not also scientifically inclined, I can’t say. It’s always been mysterious to me how balanced the left and right brains are of many career scientists and yet how inflated the right brain can get without similar inflation occurring on the left among career artists. The corpus callosum seems to be a directional valve, allowing things to flow to the right but not to the left with equal ease. A very, very few artists disprove this, but they seem to be in the vast minority whereas nearly all of the scientists I’ve known have been artistic (and often musical).

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  1. […] as an further exploration of what I said in the previous post, I’d like to offer the […]

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