Does Science Need Art?

Here’s something to think about, from a recent article in the Business section of the Christian Science Monitor, one of the “newspapers of record” in the United States (
The need to hire 100,000 more teachers in science, technology, engineering, and math to make American students globally competitive is so urgent that President Obama has called it a ‘Sputnik moment.’  Yet a growing chorus of educators say something is missing from the plan.

‘It’s necessary but not sufficient’ to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), says Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla.  ‘You don’t go anywhere with STEM if you don’t have STEAM – and that’s [adding “A” for] the arts, the creative part. 
The article goes on to illustrate how major business enterprises have used design to promote competitiveness and engage consumers.  What does this have to do with science?  The same mind-stretching and creative generation of new ideas and exploration of the connections among existing ideas that powers art is a crucial part of the scientific process.
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in The Matter of Origins. Photo by Jacyln Borowski, courtesy Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
On one hand, people connect art with free association, leaps between different images, and metaphor, while neglecting the role of discipline and planning.  In contrast, the popular mind thinks of science as a sterile, rule-based pursuit, devoid of or even hostile to creative process.  But the generation of the hypotheses to be tested, the application of new techniques or approaches, and the way studies are planned and laid out are all stages on which creativity acts.  Both scientists and society have given too little credit to the role of creativity in science.  Scientists as well as artists and writers keep journals for ideas, sketch and doodle networks of ideas and interactions, and use analogy and metaphor to generate their raw materials.
Art in all its forms — from sculpture, through writing, to dance — uses skills, talents, and habits that stretch the imagination and open the mind to new ideas.  So then a connection of art and science can be a part of a healthy diet for the sciences.  STEAM power, as President Thompson said.
The Baltimore Ecosystem Study is exploring this connection.  During the 2009 Annual Meeting performances and interactions with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange inaugurated our exploration of the connection between arts and science.  For more on this nationally known and environmentally and scientifically engaged dance company, see  Did the experience of resilience through the eyes of artists help the socio-ecological researchers think more clearly or creatively about the concept?  That’s hard to document.  But the opportunity to ask ourselves such questions as these seems important: What does my research have to do with art?  What images and connections does art suggest that have parallels in science?  What does my work say that can be represented in some artistic way?  Or perhaps simply the opportunity to open the mind, and take a chance on a new way of seeing a problem or a solution is good enough.
More interactions are planned with the Dance Exchange, which is headquartered in Takoma Park, MD. With the participation of USDA Forest Service researchers, members of BES, and school and after-school programs, members of the Dance Exchange will lead participating children in the creation of ‘moving field guides,’ a live, performative collection that animates local ecology in the Potomac watershed through a combination of movement, visuals and the act of outdoor walking.  The project will be implemented in the spring and summer of 2011 through a series of sessions involving artists, scientists, and  approximately 50 students ages 8-12.  See more on this activity in the BES News.
We’ll also be experimenting with the connection between art and science in future BES Annual Meetings.  Illustrated “zines” by secondary school students and photography are on the agenda for the near future.  Music is a possibility too.  A little mind stretching is good for the creative aspects of science.  A little art is good for connecting with the larger world too.  These are two needs of science that art can help satisfy.