Science and Art – a Natural Partnership or Two Very Different Fields?

In my last post I explained the main aims that I have for the Fellowship that I am currently on; if you missed that, then in basic terms I want to explore how science and art can come together to improve the way that members of the public engage with science.

Since that post I’ve had lots of conversations with wonderful scientists, researchers, science communicators, and members of the public (Canadians are probably the friendliest people in the world, but Canadians in coffee shops are a whole new level of friendly), about the relationship between science and art, so I wanted to try to capture some of those thoughts in a blog post. Mainly I’m writing this as a way to keep track of my own thoughts around this topic, but I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts to – leave a comment below or send me a Tweet if you’d like to join the conversation!

My initial thoughts about the potential relationship between the fields of science and art started a really long time ago. In my early teenage years I wanted to be a graphic designer, I had dreams of setting up my own business, just like my Dad had, and spending my days steeped in creativity. After a couple of years that no longer sounded like a viable career for me; I did a GCSE in Art & Design and got a grade A, but even the process of doing a GSCE in the subject felt like too much pressure for me. I loved being creative, but being creative under pressure (in this case exam conditions) was not something I enjoyed at all – the pressure made me feel claustrophobic and my usually creative brain was suddenly unable to think as usual.
That realisation was a tricky one; I clearly wasn’t cut out to be a working designer where the pressure was not exam conditions, but bill paying and you know, life. I thought about other careers including law, medicine and surgery, my grades were decent and the options presented to me by careers advisors at school were a reflection of that. None of those really interested me and it took me a few months of trawling through university prospectuses to find the course I wanted to do – Pharmacology (the science of how drugs act on the body). I still wasn’t sure where I’d go career-wise, but I figured getting a science degree would give me some options, and I liked the sound of the topics that would be covered in the Pharmacology degree program at the University of Aberdeen.

During the years of my undergraduate degree I didn’t do much art, I made jewellery sometimes but I didn’t feel like I was being creative very often at all. Now when I look back, I was being creative all of the time; but I’d been taught throughout years of education that creativity meant activities like drawing and painting. I was writing all of the time, I read daily, and I was solving problems in almost every aspect of my degree – all tasks that require creative input. I was being creative, just not ‘traditionally’ so.

It’s not just me that has thought this way. Towards the end of last year I took part in the ‘I’m A Scientist‘ online event with school children across the UK. Lots of them were asking questions about careers, what our favourite subjects were at school and whether that linked in with what we were doing now. My favourite subject was Art & Design, and it took those kids asking questions of me to realise that I use creative skills every single day in my job. To me, science is inherently creative, I just hadn’t realised it because my teachers always presented science and art as opposing fields; you were good at one or the other, not both.

I guess this sort of thought process came from the myth of the left brain/right brain.

Image credit: Maggie Wince ‘Left Brain / Right Brain’

From a blog post written by Robert H Shmerling MD from Harvard Health Publishing:

“Those who are right-brained are supposed to be intuitive and creative free thinkers. They are “qualitative,” big-picture thinkers who experience the world in terms that are descriptive or subjective. For example, “The skies are gray and menacing; I wonder if it’s going to rain?”
Meanwhile, left-brained people tend to be more quantitative and analytical. They pay attention to details and are ruled by logic. Their view of the weather is more likely, “The forecast said there was only a 30% chance of rain but those cumulonimbus clouds will probably bring thunder as well as rain.””

I’m not going to go into the depths of scientific research that discount this thought process, instead I want this blog post to be a way for scientists to be reminded that they are creative people, and for younger readers to understand that it’s absolutely fine (and actually very helpful) to think creatively in the world of science.

Note: If you are interested in learning about the science behind this left brain/right brain idea, I saw that Samantha Yammine (you may know her as Science Sam) plans to cover this on her Instagram over the coming weeks. Follow her here and keep an eye an her Instagram stories and feed.

The reason why I’m passionate about exploring how art can be used to engage the public with science is because of these experiences; I never thought I would be a scientist because I thought that I was a ‘creative’ person; someone expressive and emotional (ask my boyfriend, I can be pretty dramatic if I’m hungry/too cold/too hot). I am expressive and emotional, and I’m a scientist too; I think that those qualities make me a better scientist. Lots of the conversations that I have had over the past week have included scientists echoing that sentiment. Infusing science with creativity means that conversations about science, and scientific issues, are encouraged within and between groups of society outside those that they may reach with traditional forms of science communication. It’s no use trying to have a conversation about a scientific issue that could impact on everyone, if there are huge sections of society not being invited into that conversation. I believe that creativity is one way to ensure we’re at least inviting every part of society to that discussion.

What do you think; if you’re a scientist, would you describe yourself as creative? If you’re not a scientist, then what do you think of this idea of sparking conversations about science with creative practices?

More information on the idea of science and art working together can be found by clicking the links below:

Artists and Scientists: More Alike Than Different
Why Art and Science are More Closely Related Than You Think
Art for Science – Science Communication Through Art
Why Researchers Should Use Art to Talk Science
Scientists are More Creative Than You Might Imagine
Exploding the Myth of the Scientific vs Artistic Mind

A Day at the Wellcome Collection, London

Last week I was in London for an interview (hopefully more on that later, but until I find out the results of said interview let’s skip over that..). The flight down from Aberdeen was super early and I didn’t fly back until 7.30pm, so I spent the majority of the day at the Wellcome Collection.

Every time I’m in London I mean to come to the Wellcome Collection, but I’m usually so pushed for time that it ends up falling off my itinerary in favour of the stuff that I’m actually in London for. Anyway, with a decent amount of spare time I was delighted to be able to have lunch in the Wellcome Cafe (super busy, but really friendly staff and the best sweet potato salad I’ve ever eaten), spend money I shouldn’t be spending in the Wellcome Shop (everything is gorgeous and I need all of the books and science stuff that they sell), catch up on emails and have a mooch around the Wellcome Library, and have a look around the exhibits before heading back to the airport.

The Wellcome Library

I got a free day pass to use the library and wifi, and honestly, I wish this library was closer to home for me. You can’t take in coats/bags etc, you leave your belongings in a locker outside the library, and take what you need in (laptop, charger etc) in a clear plastic bag. This is the best thing ever. At first I was a bit weirded out by this, but when I got into the library it made more sense. There’s no clutter anywhere, people are working away without ‘stuff’ everywhere, and all of the stuff you do in an effort to procrastinate and avoid work is locked up. I found the library a really good place to do work in; I hate working in cluttered environments because I find it hard to concentrate, so this was perfect. I got through a tonne of emails, a few bits of my to do list, and then went for a wander around.

Exhibits at the Wellcome Collection

I missed the ‘Can Graphic Design Change Your Life?’ exhibition, it finished on the 14th of this month and I’m still not over it – if you’re interested in that I’d recommend Chloe Turner’s blog post here which gives a good summary (and some sneaky photos) of the exhibit. Anyway, what I did see were the Medicine Man, Medicine Now, and Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine exhibitions.

Medicine Now was my favourite of the exhibits, and the one I was most impressed with. It offered something for everyone, there was an activity station at the back where children (and adults!) were playing and making postcards to communicate their feedback (left).

The Medicine Now exhibit also had some ridiculously cool exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of the human body. First – this slice of human, yes, it’s a slice of an actual human being. When the person died they donated their body to science, and the fluids in their body were replaced with plastics to allowed a clean cut to be made. This is a controversial technique, but if it’s your thing I’d also recommend trying to get to a Body Worlds exhibition. I went to one at the Centre for Life in Newcastle a few years ago and it was fantastic.

Behind the slice of body (wow, that does sound gross) above, you can see a transparent model of a body, complete with organs, blood vessels and bones. In my opinion this was the best bit of the entire exhibit. By the body’s feet was a panel of buttons, no instructions, just buttons. Clearly my curiosity got the better of me and I went on to press each and every one of the buttons in front of me – thankfully, that was the idea. When I pressed the buttons, the corresponding organ lit up. I took a little video clip for Instagram so you can see what I mean:

As well as the super cool bodies, Dolly the sheep made an appearance (well, her front-page Time magazine, some droppings and a handful of wool, as did a wall of chromosomes made out of socks.

If you’re in London and have a few hours to spare, I’d definitely recommend heading to the Wellcome Collection! The Medicine Now exhibit is permanent and free.