This is a column about science. On a website dedicated to sublime storytelling and all things artsy. Out of place? Where can free-spirited creativity fit into the rigid, calculated structure of the natural sciences?
The Art of Doing Science
The truth is, imagination and insight are much more important to the advancement of our knowledge than rote drudgery in a labcoat. Sure, we need folks to bang out titrations and catalogue newly observed stars, but it’s those who can transcend the stodgy boundaries of the ordinary, much like writers and artists, who revolutionize our thinking and make the greatest contributions to expanding our intellect.
It could come in the form of attraction to an idea deemed too strange by others, such as when biologist Lynn Margulis developed her endosymbiotic theory that cell structures were early organisms themselves that were engulfed by bigger guys, a far out notion that didn’t gain traction until years after her original proposal.
Or through the penetrating geometric vision of men like Francis Crick and James Watson, who identified the shape of DNA’s double helix in the 1950’s and in so doing untangled the secrets of heredity. And how can we overlook the mind-numbing, borderline supernatural cleverness of Albert Einstein, whose Gedanken thought experiments showed us what it’s like to ride a beam of light?
Just another uptight egghead
Beyond the “hard” sciences, psychologists in particular have need for exquisite shrewdness. Physicists and chemists have the luxury of their subjects not being influenced by their own expectations and the unconscious cues of the experimenters, after all. Most people won’t readily admit (even to themselves) how far they’ll go to respect authority, necessitating Stanley Milgram’s deceptive experiment in which unsuspecting subjects shocked (not really) others when directed by a stern instructor.
A personal favorite is the Asch conformity investigations that test just how far you’ll go to be a part of the crowd, even when the crowd (as dictated by the sneaky scientist) answers a question with a blatantly wrong answer. Spoiler alert: you’re more of a sheep than you’d like to believe.
If 50 other people insisted A was the longest line segment… could you resist agreeing?
Doing Science in Your Art
Don’t think that the pendulum doesn’t swing the other way, too (with a period directly proportional to the square root of its length). True science fiction not only finds inspiration in the methodical process, but authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke can even contribute to it, by coining future terminology and heralding the arrival of new technologies.
Closer to our creative corner are webcomics like PhD Comics, a lighthearted look at the tribulations of a typical graduate student, and the legendary xkcd. Even the most maligned of scientific grumps, the skeptics, have artistic admiration in the form of Zack Kruse’s “Mystery Solved” and Sara Mayhew’s Legend of the Ztarr manga.
A choice xkcd strip. I swear it’s hilarious.
It’s not just pretty words and pictures. You can find science inspired jewelry by Surlyramics and the Molecularmuse. And would you believe… scientific dances?! That’s the idea behind John Bohannon’s “Dance Your PhD” contest, a wonderful mixture of movement and research in which participants attempt to explain their work to novices through the medium of interpretative action. Last year’s winner (in the competition’s fifth installment!) was entitled “A Super-Alloy is Born: The Romantic Revolution of Lightness and Strength.” Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this has to be seen to be believed.
So where many see stodgy stoicism and humorless attention to detail, reality reminds us it’s the ability to break away and look outside the box that propels us forward. Just as an artist creates something from nothing for the whole world to see, scientists on the edge of discovery perceive intrinsic truths for the first time and experience the same kind of spiritual satisfaction. Their work and deeds further inspire those of us on the outside to venerate their brilliance through all manners of varied talents. Science and art truly are inextricable threads in the same beautiful tapestry.