The Artistic Science

Breaking the Bars of Science and Art

Overcoming the Fear

Moon

After the positive comments and great reaction to the blog launch I realise all the more just how important the concept of artistic science really is. I find myself debating what to write next. I long to share with you some of the amazing things I’ve seen studying physics, or even what we’re doing in the lab today but equally I want us to explore something new together. Before we go any further it strikes me that we need to understand why humanity seems so fixed on categorisation and tribalism, lest we fall into the same trap.

As a keen, though somewhat picky, film and television lover I do happen across certain trends from time to time. Recently I have been made aware of the amount of fear with which which popular television (generally) seems to regard science. Take for example channel 4’s new series: Utopia, where mysterious geneticists are covertly manipulating the world’s governments to bring about what appears to be some kind of viral Armageddon. The protagonists are forced on the run, unknown as to why they are being hunted or who is hunting them – even as the truth is revealed they seem ignorant of what they’re being told. In contrast, the villains of the series seem fully aware of what is going on but say little of it themselves. They are not intimidating or threatening in their appearance, but instead derive all their power from their position of knowing what their audience do not and thus generating an underlying sense of trepidation.

So it is in the real world. We naturally fear the unknown. As human beings we are constantly seeking to prove our worth. We seek to show ourselves as worthy of respect or money, to be desirable and to be given power. However the unknown is a constant threat to us. Not only can the unknown potentially hurt us physically, but it can show us to be weak and vulnerable. The unknown is our enemy. In order to protect ourselves against this our automatic defence mechanism is to brand anything unknown as unnecessary – to mock it and make it seem small in order to make ourselves look bigger. We see this in our schools and universities as different disciplines belittle one another. We see it in the workplace where certain occupations are sidelined by those who know nothing about it. We even see it on a personal level as anybody who knows more than most on a subject is branded a ‘geek’.

As, at least until recently, the vast majority of those in the media sector had a background in the ‘arts’ as opposed to the ‘sciences’ it is not surprising that this tribal divide has been carried through from our education system into our media – forming a vicious circle which reinforces the idea that science and art are not compatible. Despite this, in recent years the media have come a long way in demystifying science. The BBC have showed to be devoted to making quality, informative and accessible documentaries with such popular TV series as Sir. David Attenborough’s Africa‘ & Prof. Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Solar System‘ – yet perhaps the most effective attempt of late came from the US in the form of the american comedy ‘The Big Bang Theory‘. Again it seems that humour and the mocking of the unknown is the only safe way in which to interact with it.

I remember when I went to University to study physics I lived with a history of art student. She was fantastically talented and passionate about her subject in a way that was truly infectious. Often I would get back late from work when everybody had either gone out or gone to bed for the night to find her sat up writing or painting. Every time I’d find myself lost in what I saw; the paintings and posters scattered across the walls, piles of books and compendiums on various artists and visionaries, a whole other world right across the hall. It was then that I started to ask the questions. Further and further down the rabbit hole I tumbled as I marvelled at what was around me, whilst all the while she sat patiently – answering and gently guiding. I stumbled around the subject like a child learning to walk and yet with every faltering step I found a whole new realm of ideas and opportunities. Whether it was folly or courage I can’t say, but instead of dreading what I didn’t know I felt myself embraced by it. Instead of seeing a threat I saw an opportunity and oh how beautiful it was!

In order to truly practice The Artistic Science we must overcome this fear of the unknown, we must be prepared to admit that we don’t know and that’s ok because that’s why we’re here! As we start our journey we should expect to come across new concepts, new world-views – even our language differs between disciplines – but let’s not be deterred. Let’s dive in, let’s embrace the alien, have the courage to take on the unknown and finally, overcome the fear.

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3 thoughts on “Overcoming the Fear

  1. I think part of the problem with the accessibility of science is that there is a lack of people capable of explaining difficult concepts in comprehensible ways, which is why Brian Cox is doing so well now. I agree with you, a lot of this is probably down to the predominance of arts people in the media, perpetuating the notion that science is hard and therefore not worth trying to understand.

    I think it doesn’t help that to understand modern physics requires a certain level of knowledge of concepts that many people don’t have. You have to know something about quantum physics to even understand what’s going on at CERN. But if you take someone articulate and enthusiastic it’s possible to make the subject interesting and accessible. I think that’s why some subjects at school seem more interesting than others – it depends on having a good teacher.

    • Yeah that’s a good point, usually the main reason people don’t understand things is because they were explained badly. We were taught that often physics papers are deliberately written confusingly so that it made the authors seem more intelligent and therefore more valuable – if nobody else can understand their research it makes it more exclusive to them.

      Why do you reckon there aren’t more people doing things like Cox? Is there someone similar explaining the ‘arts’?

      • At risk of painting stereotypes, my experience of very smart scientists is that they often aren’t particularly engaging communicators. Or at least, not going by my lecturers. The ability to take a complex idea and make it comprehensible requires the ability to both understand the idea very well, and then understand the way others think so as to explain it. Not easy I think. Simon Singh also does this very well I think, but sometimes someone may have the talent but may just not get the exposure.

        I don’t know if there’s someone similar for the arts, I think there is a lot more mainstream coverage of things like history and art and literature. Whether it enters into the same sort of depth as explaining quantum physics, I’m not sure.

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