Thursday, March 13, 2008

Scientists Who Do Art

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed—Albert Einstein

Last November, I was introduced to Krista Fogel, a University of British Columbia masters student, who was investigating the use of creative art in high-ability scientists. Her thesis was entitled: The Self-Perceived Experience of Investigating Science with an Artistic Spirit: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of High Ability Scientists Who Also Engage in the Arts. Hermeneutic, by the way, is the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts (I had to look it up) and phenomenology is an approach to philosophy through the study of phenomena. Krista wanted to interview me as part of her project. I was flattered, of course. Me, a High Ability Scientist? Who told her that?
Once I got past my own humble angst, I found Krista’s questions bracing; they reopened a world of compelling ideas I have carried with me for some time. The concept of using art to do good science has dwelled inside me since registration day at Concordia University when I quit my fine arts program to pursue a science degree only to come full circle and write fiction. I got my Masters Degree in Ecology and Limnology and now work as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm. I do research, drive boats, collect samples and analyze data then write up my recommendations. But I also write science fiction novels.

“History shows that eminent scientists also engaged in the arts, such as Leonardo da Vinci,” said Fogel. She went on to cite 400 other famous scientists who also practiced art at a high level. “If not entirely engaged in the arts, scientists throughout history have at least engaged in science with an artistic spirit. Scientists and artists use common tools for thinking such as intuition and imaginative processes.” Krista and I met several times at the local Starbucks, where I could get my “brain” fix as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to talk about my personal experience of art in science. She then came up with this synopsis (summary below), which I thought interesting and illuminating of both me and my interviewer. Here are some excerpts:
In Nina’s experience of investigating science with an artistic spirit, she
holds her heart central, from which the artist springs: (Nina) “An artist—the
driving part, the creative part, the ingenius part, the genius part, innovative,
inquisitive, intuitive parts—all these are incredibly important in science, but
they have to come from the artist. So, I think that every good scientist is an
artist at heart.” From her heart, comes her motivation, which drives her
science: (Nina) “…science is the tool and art is the process—the
motivation.” The heart is central to being in tune with what is out there,
and [this] allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed
discovery. Nina suggests three ways to tune-in her heart into getting into the
artistic spirit from which investigating science becomes more

1. Music: (Nina) “I use music to get me back
wherever it is I’m going. Music is art in one of its highest forms.”

2. Hardship: although hardships are certainly not
sought out, Nina uses them as an opportunity for tuning-in. When reflecting on
such hardships, she explains: “there’s a part of me that wishes they didn’t
happen. But on the same token, they created an opportunity for me to grow and
learn. Another important part of the whole [hardship] experience is that when
you’re way down there in wherever that bad place is, something special happens

3. Training: Nina also talks about training her
mind to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around her: (Nina) “So
often, when I’m doing research for a novel, I pick up things serendipitously.
Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. This new
article pops up in the news. I seldom watch the news, and there it is! Or I’m
talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These
things are always happening to me.” In her scientific pursuits, Nina suggests
that her reactions to serendipitous occurrences and consequent discoveries are
motivated by the artist in her: (Nina) “I was doing a comparative pollution
study using glass slides for colonizing algae, comparing an urban stream to an
agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between streams
when I made a discovery that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces
according to the current. How and why? That’s more of an artistic question. I
decided to pursue this new line of research (which turned out to be far more
interesting than my original research) and wrote several papers on
it.” Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” correspond with Nina’s
artistic work as a science fiction writer, where (Nina) “the ‘what if’ question
is the science fiction writer’s mantra, the premise, which comes from the artist
part of you.” Nina makes sense out of the experience of connectivity and
being in tune, by first recognizing that there is a reason for it; furthermore
she attributes it to something more, something greater: (Nina) “There’s a reason
for everything. I think God is everything. I believe we are more than we

According to Mark A. Runco (California State University) creativity depends on originality, while accomplishment and achievement reflect other problem-solving skills. “Creative thinking involves at least three things: the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, an interest in producing original interpretations, and discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects that fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. “It is one thing to memorize some datum; it is quite another to discover it for one’s self; only then do we understand,” says Runco. This is what I do in science all the time. I agree with Runco: what Piaget called “invention” is a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation. Yet, creativity seems to operate differently than talent or expertise. According to Dean Keith Simonton (University of California), even the most illustrious creative geniuses of history have careers riddled by both hits and misses, both successes and failures. He uses Albert Einstein as an example. A man who has achieved almost mythical status as a genius, Einstein’s career “was plagued by terrible ideas, false starts and surprising disasters.” Simonton tells the story of Einstein’s debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, in which Einstein offered a series of arguments that Bohr countered. “Once Bohr even demolished one of Einstein’s attacks by pointing out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity!” Einstein apparently wasted the final years of his career working on a unified field theory that was almost universally rejected by his colleagues. Einstein defended his missteps by noting that errors can advance science so long as they are not trivial.

Imagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein

The only real valuable thing is intuition—Albert Einstein

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Creativity is the hardest thing. It spark of originaly that will send us into unexplored avenues.

sfgirl said...

But once you tap into it, it is the most wonderful thing and, like riding a bike, it will come back time and again...

archeyper said...

Thank you, sfgirl for a wonderful article! Thank you for pulling me back into the hybrid of art & science.

sfgirl said...

Yes, Archeyper... hybrid is a good word. Like a new species, a new species in the making... Both scientists and artists are becoming more creative in their use of each "genre" and the lines between the two are blurring. I like that.