Science Questions with Surprising Answers
Answers provided by
Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Do scientists have a hard time understanding art?

Category: Society      Published: September 4, 2013

Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

Actually, scientists tend to be more art-minded than your average person. Science is a highly creative process, and so it tends to attract people who innately understand art, appreciate art, and create art. The old notion goes that one half of the brain is highly creative and the other half of the brain is highly technical/mathematical. According to this old notion, each person has a dominant half, resulting in only two types of people in the world: creative people who can't do math, and technical people who can't make art. First of all, this old notion is simply wrong. The brain is very complex. Creativity and technical ability, along with hundreds of other traits, emerge from a complicated interaction of neurons that involves the whole brain. A study performed by Harnam Singh found that "Notably, the MG [Mathematically Gifted] showed no reliable left-right differences when processing global or local information on unilateral trials." This study found that mathematical ability is more a function of how well the two halves of the brain communicate and work together and not a function of which half dominates. Furthermore, there are creative technical people and non-creative, non-technical people, so the two traits are not mutually exclusive. Also, there are billions of different kinds of people in the world, each with his or her unique blend of traits.

Even if half of the brain was solely creative and the other half was solely technical, real science requires both, so scientists would have both halves equally dominant. It is true that science uses mathematics and technical recipes. But those are just the language of science. The meat of science is highly creative: forming hypothesis, building new tools, crafting new models, designing new experiments, interpreting results, and making conceptual connections. The only part of science that is not very creative (running the experiment once everything is designed and setup) is not even done typically by scientists these days. The actual running of an experiment is typically carried out by machines or lab technicians. Forming a hypothesis involves creating an idea about how the world works that may or may not be true. There are no technical recipes for making original hypotheses. When students read biographies of great scientists, they often puzzle, "how did he come up with this idea in the first place?" Often, the only answer is, "He was creative." Some of the best scientists have the craziest ideas for a new model or a new experiment. Most of these ideas don't work out, but some do. Building new scientific tools; such as microscopes, telescopes, particle accelerators, and particle detectors; is an important form of science. People who use established science to build ever better tools are engineers. People who use new science in order to build better tools are scientists. There is not one right way to build a better tool. It requires a lot of creativity to think up ways to apply some new science in order to create a better tool. Similarly, new models, new theories, and new experiments have to thought up by a creative person before they can be tested, applied, and tweaked. When a given experiment spits out a set of resulting numbers, it takes creativity to make connections and interpret the numbers.

Scientists are very much like artists: they create new ideas, apply them, and see if they work. For science, an idea "works" if it predicts the behavior of the physical universe. For art, an idea "works" if it pleases the senses and/or successfully conveys a meaningful concept, emotion, or impression. Just as there is not one right way to paint a tree, there is not one right way to make a telescope. (Although, there are more wrong ways to make a telescope than there are wrong ways of painting a tree. In this sense, art is more forgiving than science.) If you have a picture in your mind of a person non-creatively carrying out a predefined list of technical steps, you have not pictured a scientist. You have pictured an assembly-line worker, a repairman, or an accountant.

Because science is a highly creative process, scientists tend to be painters, singers, sculptors, composers, illustrators, poets, or novelists in their free time. Einstein played the violin. Max Plank was a good pianist, but gave up a promising career at the conservatory to study physics and become one of the founders of quantum theory. Feynman was secretly a published artist and not-so-secretly an avid drummer. A study by R. S. Root-Bernstein found that the success of a budding scientist is strongly correlated with the degree to which he enjoys musical and artistic hobbies.

Topics: art, brain, creative, creativity, left brain, music, personality, right brain, scientist, scientists