Art Mirrors Science Mirrors Art
Lionel Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy, San Diego State
Late last summer, Claire Trageser of the Voice of San Diego talked about Dale Chihuly’s open-air exhibit at the Salk Institute entitled “Salk Meets Picasso”. Trageser wrote that Salk believed in the importance of using art to stimulate creativity. According to Dr. William Brody, Salk’s current president, Salk “understood the appreciation of art and saw its connection to science.”
No surprise, then, that most of the scientists at Salk are equally accomplished in the fine arts, either drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument or in some way hosting concerts in its auditorium for themselves, their staff and local residents. Nor is it any surprise that the “best and brightest” are equally accomplished in the fine arts as well as the hard sciences.
Leonard Shlain, author of Art and Physics: Parallel Dimensions in Time and Space, once observed that great art reflects what is happening in our physical world and often predicts our scientific future. For example, he relates the story, that while Picasso probably didn’t know Einstein, his Cubism was developed about the same time that Einstein first published his theory of relativity. In fact, Shlain says, that if you asked each of them to explain their artistic or scientific discovery, they would use much the same analogies to explain what they had discovered.
Robert Root Bernstein, a MacArthur Prize Fellow studying at the University of California San Diego twenty year ago, took it upon himself to look at the biographies of the top 100 scientists who lived over the last 200 years. What he found was startling: every great scientist was not only accomplished in his field but in the fine arts as well.
In his subsequent book, Sparks of Genius, he and his wife Michelle — after looking at the question much more deeply — discovered that there shouldn’t be two cultures as currently exists, one favoring artists and the other scientists, but that in fact the whole-brained individual is one who draws on both sides both of the brain and the most successful of our species have found a way to create those synapses between both hemispheres to make the most of that thing we call the brain.
Yet the curse of the “two cultures” persists.
Fifty years ago, physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow talked about “two cultures” of physicists and writers; and the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” …its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals.”
That divide, according to Natalie Angier of The New York Times, “continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned”.
Can we change that attitude?
As a whole new economy based upon creativity and innovation emerges — the dawn of the “Creative Age” — the importance of reinventing our business strategies, our corporations, our communities, our schools and more is critical. Nothing can remain the same if we are to survive, let alone succeed in this new global economy.
We desperately need to redesign our high school and college curricula in particular, to focus on preparing students for this new competition. For if America does not capture the high ground in this latest effort to transform education — by meeting the global, economic demand for creativity and innovation — America will lose the lead it currently enjoys forever.
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