–by T.I. Meyer, TRIUMF’s Head of Strategic Planning & Communication
“So, did the 8 pieces of artwork actually generate any new insights for the physicists about neutrino oscillations,” asked the gentleman in the fifth row of the auditorium. I was on stage with my colleague Professor Ingrid Koenig from Emily Carr University of Art & Design. We were leading a 75 minute session at the Innovations: Intersection of Science & Art conference, curated by Liz Lerman and organized by Wesleyan University in central Connecticut.
The gentleman, chair of Wesleyan’s department of environmental science, repeated his question, “So you said this project was about seeing if you could have art influence physics rather than just the other way around. Well, did it work?”
Damn good question. I looked at Ingrid for a moment and then responded: “Nope.” But then I continued. No, we did not achieve success in using physics-inspired artwork to change the course of particle physics. But yes, in addition to learning that we posed the wrong hypothesis, we did achieve three other outcomes: (1) We constructed and executed one of the first research experiment at the intersection of art and science; (2) We documented a carefully controlled interaction of artists and particle physicists; and (3) We launched an inquiry that now has a national laboratory (TRIUMF) musing about how to exercise its influence in local and national culture for the advancement of society.
What was all this about? We were invited to lead a session at this conference because of the “RAW DATA” project for which TRIUMF and Emily Carr collaborated. For the full story on our “experimental research project,” please see this handsome website. One thing we discussed in the Q&A period (of course!) was the next step in the research. Perhaps rather than focusing on an experiment where the “work” of scientists was transferred to artists (whose “work” in turn was transferred to other artists and then back to scientists), we should construct an experiment where a “practice” or “process” of science (and art) was transferred. For instance, one thing scientists and artists both deal with is uncertainty and ambiguity. It was suggested that there might be something valuable uncovered if we had scientists and artists sharing their approaches to dealing with and communicating uncertainty.
The purpose of the conference was to pull together scientists, artists, and teachers from across North America to compare emerging trends and look for common opportunities for teaching at the intersection of art and science as well as for performing research at the intersection of art and science. In many regards, universities are starting to respond to the teaching opportunity but are less organized in exploiting the research opportunity. For instance, a key thread at the conference was the distinction between “art working for science” and “science working for art” when the real question might be, “What can science and art do together?” Lofty goals, of course, especially when sometimes the first step of bringing the fields together might actually be some “service” for the other side.
Better yet, I was not the only particle physicist there! Sarah M. Demers, an ATLAS physicist from Yale of some fame, participated as well, based on her experience co-teaching a “Physics of Dance” course with famed choreographer Emily Coates. The duo gave a fascinating presentation that started out with an inquiry “How do I move?” or rather “Why can I move?” Starting from the observation that atoms are mostly empty space and gravity ultimately attracts everything, they discussed why we can stand up at all (electrostatic repulsion between the electrons orbiting the atoms of the floor and those orbiting the atoms in my shoe on my foot in my sock). Then the question became, “How can I actually move my body at all if everything is repulsive and forces are balanced?” The answer came next, articulated by the dancer/choreographer who talked about how we use friction to generate a net force on our center of mass and can then use electrical impulses to stimulate chemical reactions in our muscles to push against ourselves and the floor. And then the talk moved to how to present and experience the Higgs field and the Higgs boson…in the form of a dance. WOW.
Throughout the 36 hours of this intensive, multi-dimensional conference (yes, we did “dance movement” exercises between sessions to help reflect and internalize the key points of discussions), I took copious notes and expanded my brain ten-fold.
A few other comments from my notebook.
There are really only two things that humans do: experience or share. We are either experiencing reality or we are sharing some aspect of it via communication (and yes, one can argue that communication does occur within reality!). Doing something is an experience, making a discovery is an experience, listening to music is an experience. And teaching, publishing a scientific paper, or making art for someone else are more in the sharing category. So, there are aspects of science and art that are both in “experience” and the “share” category.
Furthermore, science and art do not actually exist as stand-alone constructs. They only exist in our minds as modalities for thinking. They are tools, or perhaps practices, that assist human beings in “dealing with” or “responding to” the world. From this perspective, they are just some of the several modalities for organizing our thinking about the world, just like mathematics or engineering are also modalities.
During some of the breakout discussions, we sometimes got excited and use the terms art, creativity, and self-expression interchangeably. Unpacking these terms, I think, sheds considerable light on the path forward. Self-expression is just that…the process of expressing one’s self. Creativity is about being generative and often includes powerful threads of synthesis and analysis. Art, however, transcends and includes both of these. Art is meant to be “seen” by others, if I can simplify to just one verb. An artist, when creating a piece of art, is considering some audience, some community, or maybe just one person and taking into account how they might react to or interact with the artwork. It’s like the distinction between having an insight (smoking is why I have poor health) and a breakthrough (I have stopped smoking and haven’t had a cigarette for 6 months). In a strange way, this is parallel to what we do in science. An experiment or theory is just a nice idea, but until I write it up and send it out and have it approved for publication, it is just in my head and doesn’t actually advance science. Granted, scientific publications are perhaps more targeted at scientific peers while art’s discussion and acceptance might be determined by some other audiences beyond just artistic peers. But in a way, art is meant to be out there and wrestled with by people. And so is science.
So, what random musings do YOU have about science & art? Are they different? Are they the same expression of a similar human yearning or inquiry? Can they be combined?