ARCADE iss. 31.3 Science, Art and Inquiry releases today at our launch party; articles will be posted online throughout the quarter. Become an ARCADE subscriber to receive the issue in print. 

Left: Medicago minima, bur medick. Seed, hand-colored micrograph, 2013. Photo: Rob Kesseler. Right: The roof of the Great Court at the British Museum, designed by Foster and Partners.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious — the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." — Albert Einstein

Art and science are forms of inquiry. Artists and scientists ask questions. Both engage research, and most often those who practice want to share the knowledge generated. However, this does not translate to art as being the same as science—they are distinct. And they are each equally important to our collective future. Societies that nourish diverse forms of inquiry generate new knowledge and shape how we act in the world.

Science and art have complex social histories. As noted in the Oxford English Dictionary, prior to the eighteenth century, science was often used interchangeably with art to “describe a particular body of knowledge or skill: ‘his science of meter, of rime and of cadence.’” It was in the eighteenth century that science came to define skill requiring theoretical knowledge, while art represented skill requiring practice. Today, we believe both take theoretical knowledge and require practice. We argue about whether one focuses on the unique and subjective (art) and the other on universalities (science). Carl Sagan once wrote: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” The same can be said of art. In the last issue of ARCADE, devoted to STEAM (STEM + Art and design thinking), John Maeda wrote of Leonardo da Vinci’s observations that art is the queen of science. We might look to Shakespeare’s use of astronomy, an emerging science in his day, or the making of a Stradivarius violin to find art and science as dual frames for how we explore and craft our world. Throughout history, science and art have engaged in a dynamic dialogue with one another, crossing boundaries of experimentation and knowledge.

Where the connections between science and art are strongest is in a long-held belief that beauty and truth are inextricably linked. E. O. Wilson once wrote that “the elegance, we can fairly say the beauty, of any particular scientific generalization is measured by its simplicity relative to the number of phenomena it can explain.” Newton’s law of gravity is clear, symmetrical and harmonic. Darwin’s theory of evolution is so pleasing in its simplicity – evolution, on one level, is an uncomplicated explanation of change over time – and relevant to all life forms.

And yet, what is right in art and science has changed. Artists have altered what we experience as beautiful while shifting our modes of investigating the world around us. Science, too, has changed our views, our understanding of challenges as small as the role of bacteria in human health and as large as global climate change.

This brings us to the idea of messy ecosystems, complex human behaviors and the elegance of asymmetry. Scientists observing the phenomena of DNA, of gorilla behavior, of ant-to-ant communication and of the Big Bang are engaged in describing a far more complicated reality than we once thought true or even possible. Contemporary artists are investigating the intricacies of chaos and the complexities of the world as we know it. They are offering alternative vocabularies and frameworks for inquiry. Art is not science, nor is science art, but the conversations between the two might be one of the most important contributors to our collective future.

Without the arts, science is hobbled. Without science, art is static. Only when we begin to appreciate the profound impact of both the arts and the sciences on everything will we value their significance. The ensuing confluence of intelligence will lead to the creative experiments and insights that will fuel our responses to the challenges ahead—climate change, population growth and urbanization.

While in the pages of ARCADE many artists have written about how they employ science, this feature section explores connections between art and science from the perspectives of scientists. The issue builds on the STEAM theme to consider how scientists describe art as it informs their investigative process. There is no ultimate truth to be identified but a range of thoughts. One writer practices (a lot) his science and his art, musing on the relationships and distinctions. Others describe their creative investigations of scientific questions as a way of thinking like an artist rather than necessarily producing a work of art. Their work raises the question of when representations are artistic endeavors and when they initiate creative explorations; the work of the San Francisco Exploratorium offers one answer, while others are described in the art of ant watching and by means of the imagination required to propose glue-on shoes for a rhino. Yet another response is suggested by means of a photographic essay of plants as a creative product of a systematic process of investigation. Moving further toward intersections of art and science is an essay on ecology and landscape design and another on architecture and public health. These writers argue for a deeper integration of art and science in the design fields in order to shape more responsive and resilient built environments. This feature section is an exploratory narrative that moves from the distinct arenas of arts as pursued by one person to the role of interdisciplinary practices that engage the sciences and the arts. In all of these essays, inquiry replaces directive—for that is the foundation upon which both the arts and the sciences build.