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More than Big Words: Art and Science

August 17, 2013

Written mid-2007, published sometime in 2011 in this blog, republished here now in light of the thematic direction this blog is taking.


A reader of mass media publications may be familiar with how ubiquitous are the words ‘art’ and ‘science.’ Art and science are part of a vocabulary that purports to sell the virtuosity and sophistication of a product, particularly in today’s parlance of the ‘knowledge-economy.’ Many an advertorial feature or headline would promote a particular concept as standing for the ‘art and science of living,’ the ‘art and science of gastronomic adventure,’ the ‘art and science of well-being,’ and the ‘art and science of [fill in the blank with an appropriate noun or adjective],’ to the extend that these two words have become fluffy, inflated lexicons, whose convoluted and rich historical content are lost in transmission. The definition of art and science used in the context of this article is as branches of knowledge within the humanities, social science, natural science and fine art.

In an age of increasing specialization, the national education system had been constructed in such a way as to stream students into a system of rigid classification with pre-determined parameters of what constitute science and art. However, in this instance, art and science had become branches of learning that enable a university system to create academic divisions and departments. It was in the twentieth century that the academies arrived at the apotheosis of knowledge classification with their neat grouping of courses and subjects according to pre-set knowledge phylum.

The Western knowledge system has undergone rapid differentiation since the period of the Industrial Revolution. It was at this time that the Western world saw an explosion of knowledge as rapid technological improvement that allowed unprecedented access to a world hitherto barred from sight and imagination. However, many do not realize that the age of growing rationality was also accompanied by acquisition of knowledge through acts construed as mystical. Metaphysical inspiration produced solid science when chemist and mathematician such as Kekule and Ramanujan made their most potent discoveries through a subconscious act of dreaming; Kekule obtained his structure for benzene, an organic chemical structure, by dreaming of a serpent and Ramanujan received his mathematical inspiration from the Hindu Goddess Namakkal.

If there had been attempts to approach art and science through a systematic, academic construction, this tendency, unbeknownst to many, had taken root since the Renaissance, despite the polymath tendencies of its leading lights. While its main players were dabbling in knowledge areas that seemed to cross between humanities and natural sciences, they were at the same time setting the conditions by which knowledge would later be acquired and transmitted. If Leonardo da Vinci’s capabilities as an artist had enabled him to create very detailed illustrations of the human anatomy and intricate flying machines, it was necessary for Leonardo’s successors to progressively narrow down their scope of study so that the initial rough draft that came about through lightening inspiration could then be transformed into perfectly usable products. Hence, it might not be logical for a person who wishes to create a perfect aeroplane to spend too much time on anatomical drawings for inspiration, unless it is the anatomy of a bird. Moreover, many of the techniques and knowledge developed by the ‘Renaissance men’ had delimiting effects on their successors who were then trained according to the principles first mooted by the men who did not themselves had as many rules to follow.

The tendency in traditional education to train the mind along linear modes of reasoning and logic, whereby academic success is equated with the ability to imbibe and utilize knowledge gained for such ends, it seems that the world is seeing less of thinkers and visionaries and more of technical specialists. Perhaps it is in realization that many an expert has reached the cul-de-sac of problem solving within his or her field that academic departments are beginning to consider exploring new knowledge structures that could freshen and rekindle the fire of their research. At the same time, it could also be a strong desire and need to keep their work relevant to the needs of the times as well as to find creative ways to solve problems. Universities known for their innovative approaches and newer universities seeking a niche to fill are all jumping into the bandwagon of interdisciplinary studies.

Interdisciplinary studies have opened the gates towards redefining the manner in which knowledge is now acquired and utilized, particularly at the research level. One such example would be how students with background in bioinformatics, engineering and art could now collaborate with one another in fields which they would never have imagined themselves to be working on. A good example of such collaboration would be that at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Media Lab has many research groups that specialize in topics ranging from ambient intelligence (which are technological interfaces that are sensitive and adaptable to moods and surroundings) to new interfaces for musical performances of the future. While I would not provide the mathematics for calculating the increased opportunities in making innovative breakthroughs and groundbreaking discoveries, it is reasonable to suggest that the probability for such events would increase with the addition of these new disciplinary combinations into the existing figures.

In a utilitarian society, interdisciplinary studies is a good way to rejuvenate old and less popular subject areas as the wisdom contained in them could be unearthed and revived. For example, lets say one were to study the literature of an ancient culture. It would be difficult to obtain funding to merely make a study of such literature for its own sake, however much one would argue of its import to human civilization. However, let us say that this literature holds a clue to a particular natural event that has bearings on today’s environment, and provides solid record of particular conditions in the past that would be useful today. Using such an argument, the researcher would be able to increase his or her chance in obtaining funding, especially when the fruit of the research could be transformed into tangible benefits.

Two of humanity’s greatest artistic inventions are products of a marriage between art and science; music and fine art. Music itself had always been an artistic manipulation of the science of sound, whereas fine art is an artistic manipulation of the science of colours, lines and space. It so happens now that music and fine art are two areas that embrace the latest technological innovation. Electronic music was born of a marriage between kinaesthesia and experiments with aural composition. Fine artists are now using digital imaging to recreate for themselves, with some imaginative tinkering, the microscopic and macroscopic depiction of the universe, giving the world an interpretation of science through the lens of art.

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