Please visit our new site!


Strange bedfellows

Superimposing art and science as kindred concepts may be fashionable, but is it justified?

Lewis Wolpert 18 July 2005

In art, the response of individuals is entirely personal. That is not the case for the genetic code or Newton's laws...

The enthusiasm to bring the arts and science closer together, even to emphasise similarities, is rather peculiar, as they are so very different. There are not, however, two cultures as pronounced by C.P. Snow, but both are aspects of a common culture which includes industrial management, engineering, architecture, economics, politics, and sport. Yet there is currently much media coverage devoted to just this link. A recent art/science supplement in Nature begins with an introduction claiming that today it is hard to find a true artist-scientist like Leonardo da Vinci. But was da Vinci, a brilliant technologist, really a scientist? What did he discover about how the world works? And what about current scientist artists like the poet and Nobel Laureate for chemistry, Roald Hoffman, or the discoverer of the contraceptive pill, playwright and novelist Carl Djerassi?

The writer Antonia Byatt is fond of science and scientists but critical of those like me, who claim that those in the arts have hardly a clue as to what science is about, and that we scientists should be more modest about our originality and creativity. What she does not tend to discuss in her writings is the almost total absence in English literature of a good description of a scientist or science. One special exception is by a scientist, James Watson's The Double Helix, and others do exist. But the classic 'science' novels depict scientists as emotionless, dangerous males like Frankenstein. So one can have nothing but praise for Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen with its depiction of great physicists, and for those other rare works of fiction that have attempted to portray scientists accurately.

Simon Mawer, a scientist and author of the novel Mendel's Dwarf, has said that there is little difference between the artistic and scientific vision as both are constructs of the human brain, and both are permeated by uncertainty. Although it is true that uncertainty is inherent in both endeavours, most would agree that the differences between science and art – particularly the visual arts – are fundamental. Reliable science is value-free, while the arts are loaded with political, moral, and religious values. It is not meaningful to talk either about progress or validity in relation to the arts, but these are central to science. Art cannot be falsified or validated. In science the individual scientist is basically irrelevant, and all scientists contribute to a common body of knowledge. If the history of science were to be rerun, the history would be different, but the conclusions would be the same. Water would be H2O and genes would code for proteins. Moreover there would be no cultural differences as there are in the arts. But in a rerun of the arts, no Shakespeare then no Lear, and no Picasso, then no Guernica.

A widely held illusion about science is that science is constantly revising itself. Yet Alan Lightman, a physicist and a professor in the humanities, has made this claim and so ignores that the body of science changes little – Archimedes has been right about levers and floating bodies for the last two thousand years – and most of modern chemistry will be right forever. It is at the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance that scientific ideas change. The core is solid. Lightman has also claimed that while scientists ask questions that can be answered, in the arts, questions such as "What is love?" are more interesting than the answers. But that may because the arts provide no answers.

Lightman has further claimed that the arts and humanities offer science an essential set of ideas and images. There are few, if any good examples of the contribution of the arts to science. By contrast, science has offered the arts many images, though some of them are trivialised in the extreme. Consider the art historian Martin Kemp's enthusiasm for a portrait of a Nobel Laureate biologist, created using a paint that includes a culture of the subject's own DNA. While there are probably many viewers of this portrait for whom this is relevant, in art, the response of individuals is entirely personal. That is not the case for the genetic code or Newton's laws.

The impact of the arts and science on individuals is very different. The arts can evoke a wide variety of emotional reactions, whereas the response to science is largely intellectual pleasure or, more often, confusion. Perhaps most tellingly, the fact is that scientists are, in general, much more familiar with the arts than those in the arts are with science.

Trying to bring arts and science closer together is basically social snobbery, as scientists are still envious of the status of the arts and the humanities. This may reflect the value the upper classes placed on the arts, and their contempt for technology which they do not distinguish from science, which involved workers actually making things for a living with their hands. Just look at the continued low status of engineers. There is much interest (and available funding) currently in trying to bring together the arts and the sciences; it would be far more valuable, however, to try to bring politics together with science, a collaboration that could have far more reaching effects on society, including the possible prevention of global catastrophe.


Allusions to the words of A. S. Byatt, Simon Mawer and Alan Lightman were drawn from Nature’s recent web focus on art and science. Only Byatt’s article is available without a subscription to Nature.

Other articles by Lewis Wolpert