Monday, July 22, 2013

When Art Tangos with Science

Imagination is more important than knowledge—Albert Einstein
I tell stories. I’m also a scientist. I use the scientific method in my research to seek truth; I also find truth presented to me through the symbols of intuition.
A few years ago, 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. She named her thesis: “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’d 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 had 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 was then working as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm (I now write and teach writing full time). I did research, drove boats, collected samples and analyzed data then wrote up my findings and made recommendations. I wrote science fiction novels on the side.
“History shows that eminent scientists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, also engaged in the arts,” 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 “toked” on coffee as she fumbled with her notes. A young gal with a direct but unassuming gaze and a gentle smile, Krista asked me to share my personal experience of mixing art with science. Every good scientist is an artist at heart: science is the tool and art is the process.
Fogel concluded that when conducting scientific investigations with an artistic spirit, the scientist holds her heart central, from which the artist springs. This “allows us to connect with serendipitous occurrences, which breed discovery,” Fogel added.
You can train your mind as both artist and scientist to become more aware of serendipitous occurrences around you. I call it being in sync and wrote about it in an article on The Alien Next Door (“Writing in Sync”). Often, when I’m researching a novel, I pick up things serendipitously. Something will come up that just fits with what I was searching for. An article pops up in the news. Or I’m talking to someone and they bring up just the topic I am researching. These things always happen to me. This occurs not only in my fiction writing but in my scientific pursuits. Some years ago, I was doing a pollution study using glass slides for colonizing algae to compare communities of an urban stream to those of an agricultural stream. I was really looking to see the difference between communities of these different stream environments when I discovered that the algae were colonizing the glass surfaces according to the current. Compelled with more questions of why, how and what if, I pursued this new line of research (which turned out to be far more interesting than my original research premise) and wrote several ground-breaking papers on it.
Indeed, questions like “why” and “what if” are germane to both art and science; the ‘what if’ question is the science fiction writer’s mantra and the premise, which comes from the artist part of you: imagination and an inquisitive and open mind. The idea of seemingly unrelated events intersecting to produce meaningful patterns has spawned new notions of thought from the scientific study of spontaneous order in the universe (synchrony), to Synchromysticism — the discovery of convergent archetypal symbols in pop culture (e.g., books, music and film).
Writer and philosopher Jake Kotze suggests that, “Synchronicity happens when we notice the bleed-through from one seemingly separate thing into another — or when we for a brief moment move beyond the mind’s divisions of the world.” Synchronicity and serendipitous discovery, like metaphor, appears when we change the way we look at things.
Serendipitous discovery comes to us through peripheral vision. Like our muse, it doesn’t happen by chasing after it; it sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. It comes to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty. It is then that what we had been seeking naturally comes to us. Like a gift.
Author Sibyl Hunter tells us that “Sync operates as an undercurrent of divine awareness personified through the myriad processes and symbols that make up the building blocks of our reality. Within that current, we spin our modern-day myths into books, fairy tales and movies, subconsciously retelling ourselves the same story over and over.” This also holds true in the models and metaphors of scientific genius, which often spring from the creativity of an intuitive heart and imaginative mind.
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: 1) the cognitive capacity to transform experience into original interpretations, 2) an interest in producing original interpretations, and 3) discretion.” The title of Piaget’s monograph, To Understand Is to Invent, reflects the fact that we do not have an authentic understanding of our experience until we construct that understanding for ourselves. In other words, “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. Fogel concurs: “what Piaget called inventionis a kind of creation, a creation of personal meaning. Piaget tied assimilation to imaginative play into creative interpretation.”
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. Bohr once even pointed out that Einstein failed to take into consideration the theory of relativity! According to some, Einstein 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; the greater the error, the greater the opportunity for new perspective and discovery.
It is left for us to simply recognize the dance.

This article was previously published in Scribophile and A Hopeful Sign.
College of the Canyons teaches a course for K-12 teachers: "When Art and Science Tango"

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.

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