Science needs art

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To unravel our deepest questions and take us to the blind spots where we can’t go alone, science must converge with art

Science needs art
Researchers say art boosts attention, cognition, working memory and reading fluency. They also say that art improves learning because it combines the major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store and communicate. The tools are motor skills, perceptual representation and language. Imagination is very essential for scientific creativity. It is likely that art loosens the limitations imposed on imagination.

Science can give us perfections of a machine, but we won’t like to live like a machine, and won’t like to be treated as things governed by impersonal bureaucracy and administration. Here comes art. It brings into the fold of science — the unexplainable world of magic. As Will Durant said, every science begins as philosophy and ends as art. This world of human experience is the world of art, and this experience can’t be far away from the laboratory. The future of science is art, writes Jonah Lehrer.

To unravel our deepest questions, science must overcome its limitations. It must join hands with art. Art, in association with science, can take us to the blind spots where we can’t go alone. According to one estimate, Nobel laureates in the sciences are 17 times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, 12 times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician. This clearly indicates the positive synergy between art and science.

The well-known physicist, Niels Bohr, a lover of cubist paintings, said, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” For him the invisible world of the electron was essentially a cubist world. He knew electrons could exist as either particles or waves, but he also knew that the form they took depended on how you looked at them, and their nature was a consequence of our observation.

Knowing the synapse (a structure that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell) is important, but is not enough. It is equally important to know ourselves. And to know ourselves science is not enough. We need to combine the bottom-up approach of science with the top-down approach of the arts to understand our deepest questions. It is very good that science wants to solve all our problems, but the paradox is that the closer we get to reality, the more complex become the problems.

Neuroscience says that a particular region in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain figures out what will happen next. When expectations are met, these neural circuits are rewarded and reinforced. When expectations are not met, a different part of our brain, the anterior cingulated, becomes activated, focusing our attention on the unexpected sequence.

What about incoherence, imprecision, abstraction and contradiction that art delivers? That is precisely the point. Isn’t incoherence an essential aspect of the human mind? Don’t we live in a world full of contradictions? The issue is how to make the “two cultures” move forward? What kind of “third culture” would close the communication gap between scientists and artists? Some suggestions: Art galleries should be filled with disorienting evocations of string theory. Every theoretical physics department should support an artist-in-residence. Art can help us reattach physics to the world we experience. Each side has something useful for the other side. If they join hands, the picture will be complete. Perhaps one day we shall be able to find the answers of our deepest questions, and as William James said, “Sometimes, the whole is best understood in terms of the whole”..

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)


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