Columns Opinion

The uneasy marriage of science and art

Anjali Vaidya

Fingerprints  (Photo: Anjali Vaidya)

C. P. Snow famously wrote sixty years ago about the need for more communication between his two cultures” — science and art. A physical chemist and fiction writer by profession, Snow felt perturbed by the fact that his literary and scientific circles had very little to say to each other. The separation between the two cultures has been getting deeper under our eyes;” he said, there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike.” Snow’s thesis, of course, was that the stark separation between intellectual debates in the sciences and arts was damaging to each.[1]


Over half a century on, Snow’s words continue to resonate. Rather than two cultures, what we have now in academia is a proliferation of circles that scarcely talk. Similar concerns about fundamental truths and the nature of reality keep, for instance, physicists and historians up at night, with essentially no direct scholarly communication between them. The reasons behind this splintering of disciplines are certainly complex, wound up with decades if not centuries of baggage. The perception between fields that one draws more funding than another can instigate long-running feuds. Jargons accrete that make fields opaque from each other and from the outside world, building walls that break down useful communication. 

I would argue, however, that within the Indian education system the sharp divide between the so-called cultures of science and art starts early. We are taught that math and poetry do not overlap, and then made to choose one over the other before most have managed to learn their mistake. By the age of sixteen, secondary school education in this country shunts young minds into science, arts or commerce. I can attest to the fact that by sixteen, I was old enough at least to know that the choice was ludicrous. Why separate out psychology from chemistry? Economics from ecology? Music from math? These are not mere useful distinctions that can be broken again at the graduate level, if needed. These divisions build cognitive walls: they break off conversation in a way that stunts future growth. 

About four years ago, I conspired with a fellow Biology graduate student to start a literary magazine at JNCASR. Our plan was to source poetry, prose and art from researchers at scientific institutes all over Bangalore, and perhaps beyond. This did not quite happen, of course; for practical reasons many of our submissions were from JNC itself, and in three years we only managed to publish the magazine twice. On consideration, I am not sure where we found the time to even do that much. When I was tired of analyzing data for the day, I would sink myself into copy-editing an article, or work on a short story myself. After class, we would send out emails soliciting submissions from that one student we knew had poetry hidden away. We managed to bring other students on board as we went on, but it still took months to convince the institute we were doing something worthwhile. At an institute for scientific research, where everyone goes without sleep just for their regular work, why devote time and energy and extra money to art? I learned how to rattle off reasons in my sleep. 

My reason, ultimately, was fairly simple. Everyone around me – every physicist, chemist and biologist – had a secret passion or three. Often not so secret. Reams of poetry, carefully refined over the years. A musical instrument played in private, a novel written between lab experiments. Dance classes, attended with devotion despite days spent programming at a computer. Blogs updated with regular philosophical or political rants. History books, read on the sly. Colour-filled abstract paintings, eerie photographs. Everyone had something, and of course not all of it was going to win the highest prizes, but each work that we received was a unique imprint of that person’s mind. Each work was a sign of creativity spilling out beyond the narrow bounds of disciplines into something a bit harder to define — a personal space of intellectual discovery. That was precious, for me. That was a gift. 

Currently ongoing work by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen and colleagues suggests that the cognitive underpinnings of creativity in successful artists and scientists may not actually be very different.[2] Andreasen’s Iowa Study of Creative Genius has found thus far that both high-profile artists and scientists show similar signs of mental flexibility at the neural level. Such a study must always come with the caveat that success may be as much a function of time and luck as anything else, and that individual creativity is difficult to define. However, one quality that researchers generally accept as a component of creativity is our ability to make wide-reaching, unusual mental associations. Such flexibility of mind that allows us to cast nets of thought far and wide, but not lose the story’s thread in the process, is a quantity that can, arguably, be measured through word association tests. Andreasen found that even though scientists are not typically lauded as wordsmiths, highly successful scientists and artists still showed comparably high levels of activity in the brain’s association cortices during word association tests, regardless of actual profession.

A much earlier study by the same group carried similar implications that the neural basis for creativity is not highly different across the arts and sciences.[3] Here, while studying writers involved with the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Andreasen found that creativity tended to run in families, inter-linked with varying degrees of mental illness. As the creative urge manifested itself in different family members, however, it showed little respect for disciplinary boundaries. Whatever aspect of creative ability carried a genetic or environmental component, it was as likely to express itself within a passion for science as for the arts.

Andreasen’s work holds the intriguing suggestion that creative ability itself does not distinguish between the arts and sciences. This says nothing, however, for the capacity of one individual to extend skills from one topic into another. One cannot, for instance, expect a mathematician to be able to translate her numerical gifts into proficiency as a composer, regardless of underlying comparisons one can draw between the geometry of numbers and notes. Creativity within a given discipline is a many-layered phenomenon, stemming partly from latent capacity for original thought but also from years of dedicated training. Such training can have the ultimate effect of limiting creativity, even as it provides the structural coherence required to train originality of thought into good work. I believe that artistic and scientific work can stem from the same type of creativity, but today they are judged by different standards,” says Dr. Mukund Thattai, computational biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. In science, the standard is prediction and measurement, and in art the standard is more the appreciation of your peers.” That aesthetic quality key to art still holds sway in mathematics, Thattai believes, but is no longer considered essential to science. Simultaneous expertise in such disparate topics has thus become challenging at a very basic, cognitive level. 

Can creative expression in the arts and sciences still play off one another, however? Why do we find so many who straddle the boundary, with a good amount of joy if not always professional expertise? Thattai has been involved with bringing many music and theatre programs to NCBS, for example, as well as instigating interactions between artists and biologists on campus. It’s fun,” he explains with a smile. It’s good for the soul.” Dr. Amitabh Joshi, evolutionary biologist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, goes a step further. He writes Urdu poetry in his spare time, which he feels does tap into a similar source as his biological research. Mathematical models, like poems, are metaphorical representations of reality, abstracted and beautifully expressed,” says Joshi. To be effective, a model must sing to you and tell you a story.” 

My own feeling is that creative pursuits outside a researcher’s day job, however tentatively explored, go beyond mere hobby. The danger we face while immersing ourselves within a topic is that our minds gradually ossify; we can think perfectly well along that one branching trajectory, but we cannot think further. Trapped within the conceptual constraints of a single narrowed discipline and even narrower research topic, we get stuck within the whirlpool our own circling thoughts. The biologist who writes poetry between her PCRs may never write like W. B. Yeats, and neither, I suspect, would Paul Simon be of much use in the lab. Pursuing alternate creative endeavours, however, stretches our minds in novel ways. Like learning a new language, it gives us a few more souls to choose from. I don’t find it surprising that paradigm shifts tend to come from people at the fringes of disciplines, or those with multiple disciplinary interests. The broader we can think – the farther we can see – the more methods we have for intellectual exploration, the more creative we can be.

Further reading:

[1] Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures.” The New Statesman, 1956.

[2] Andreasen, Nancy C. Creativity in art and science: are there two cultures?.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience 14.1 (2012): 49.

[3] Andreasen, Nancy C. The creating brain: The neuroscience of genius. Dana Press, 2005.