The Artistic Science

Breaking the Bars of Science and Art

Archive for the tag “art”

Does Meaning Matter?

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Art and science have represented the uncomfortable compromise between subjectivity and objectivity in our society since time immemorial, but is this simply a misunderstanding of what art and science are? Surely if we want to practice artistic science we need a firmer grasp on the truth behind these matters, moreover we must know whether there is any truth behind them at all! So we must ask ourselves: “Does meaning matter?”

Science says yes. By definition science is the search for objective truth, so everything scientifically measurable can be assigned objective meaning; from fundamental physical principles to intrinsic properties of particles – objectivity is unavoidable in science. It is of utmost importance that the scientist understands the meaning behind their results and the implications for their research. One cannot afford to say meaning is subjective when trying to assess whether a bridge will stand or in diagnosing a disease and so, clearly, only the most ardent relativist would insist that science is subjective. Yet what about art?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as the old saying goes, but is it really true? Of course different people see beauty in varying ways – but are all views accurate? Or is there objective beauty beneath it all? I suggest both. Beauty is quantified by the message it conveys. For example, throughout most cultures there have been times where high body-fat is considered attractive due to the relative prosperity it implied. However in current western society, where adequate food supply is generally not a problem, obesity instead implies health issues and lack of fitness. Both views can be understood to be accurate in given situations and furthermore their motivations are objectively good – to prosper and to be healthy are intrinsically positive things. It would appear that the value of the ‘symptom’ is found in what it represents and not in the ‘symptom’ itself. So here we have subjective interpretation of what objective truth is being represented.

It seems that when it comes to assessing meaning for purpose, this meaning does matter and is objective. Nevertheless if we were to stop here we would be doing a major discredit to the subject. The big question is: “What about art for its own sake?” At first it would seem that art would of course be subjective, yet let us consider what art is. According to Aristotle “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”  The purpose of art is to express real meaning, albeit inexpressible by other means – so perhaps it is possible to misunderstand art. Is there actually underlying truth which holds regardless of the beholder’s view? Does this mean art could be just as objective as science?

Over the coming weeks we will be investigating this further, through interviews with artists, social experiments and a deeper look at the importance of meaning. Please feel free to comment below and let us know what you think – Does meaning really matter?

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Think Before You Speak – Language is Beautiful

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The phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ has always troubled me somewhat. Of course our actions should be in line with what we say, anything else is simply hypocrisy, but to reverse the order and regard action as of primary importance is to replace truth with efficacy. Language is intrinsic to society. Universally, every culture develops language of some description and many believe our ability to communicate in complex, seemingly unnecessary ways, is what makes humans so distinct from every other form of life on our planet.

At its heart language exists to convey information; to warn, to instruct and to request aid. However we use our words to do much more than this, instead we weave them into beautiful structures through poetry and song, we fence with them in debate and we build up relationships through conversation. It seems that language is far more versatile than necessary. Take German for example, its extremely flexible sentence structure allowing the speaker to rearrange articles in order to place emphasis where required. Word-order within a statement can be altered fairly freely without changing the information conveyed within and yet swapping two words can cause a tremendous shift in tone. In this way a discouragement quickly becomes an inspirational quote and a despairing comment can be turned into a happy declaration. This creates fantastic opportunities for creativity, where we can express our inmost thoughts and feelings, convey abstract ideas and encourage great progress.

Unfortunately, as with all things, this can also be abused. Language can be used to undermine and to control. Language can even be used to alter peoples thoughts, beliefs and desires – as we see every day through advertisements and propaganda. The rough separation of strong, ‘men’s’ and deferential, ‘women’s’ words in Japanese demonstrates this well. Some believe that this innate sexism promotes a constant subliminal message that women are inferior to men – although it is worth pointing out that this is an integral part of the Japanese language and is not intentionally created, nor would it be possible to remove it over any reasonable time period.

Understanding the importance of words is paramount to progress. Of course disciplines such as literature and sociology are more than familiar with this fact, but many parts of the scientific community are seemingly oblivious to it. Some scientists even go so far as to present their work in an opaque fashion in order to appear more intellectual. This thoughtlessness to others drives the wedge between various cultures even deeper. Instead we should aim to explain our work in an accessible manner, spending careful thought on the terminology we use and the structure of our communication. Anybody who has tried to understand large chunks of foreign texts using online translation sites knows the frustration of the underestimation of words. Take, for example, the concept of beauty in English – we have many words that convey beauty: ‘pretty’, ‘appealing’, ‘gorgeous’ etc. and yet each different word carries with it numerous connotations. You would rarely call a masterpiece ‘gorgeous’ and yet telling your partner they’re simply ‘appealing’ may land you in hot water for lack of sentiment. On my last visit to Romania a friend of mine tried to thank a shopkeeper for some ice-cream but was unfortunately ignorant of the fact that the expression he was using so fervently was literally telling her that she was beautiful. Though at first flattered, she soon became slightly disturbed by his enthusiasm and so we made a quick exit before her partner returned. It is clear that our communication is not only about the message we deliver but is just as dependent on the words we use, the connotations they carry and the tone in which it is said. 

Furthermore our language is not only limited to words in the conventional sense, but to other notations also. Mathematical equations can encapsulate wonderful truths that teach us otherwise inexpressible things about our universe, chemical formulae succinctly describe structures of the building blocks of life and logical operators summarise complex arguments in a few lines. In many ways these are simply other languages alongside the more familiar English, French, Mandarin etc., although of course their purpose is much more defined and thus they are less flexible. If we are to have any hope of progress we must throw off the urge to dismiss language as replaceable. Translation is reliable to an extent, but deeper meaning is inevitably lost without further study and so we must seek to understand people on their own terms.

So do actions speak louder than words? Perhaps they do. Perhaps they are more noticeable, but are they more sensible? Action grabs attention and is memorable, but it conveys little information. A man who grabs somebody on the street could easily be a criminal or an undercover policeman depending on the circumstances – the action alone leaves us in the dark. This is my conviction and my plea to society as a whole, let us again realise the importance of communication. Twitter, Facebook, even blogs have become a source for people to satisfy their own urge to be heard rather than a constructive means of communication. In the meaningless chatter of talk-shows, advertisements and social media that drowns our culture, we have drifted away from the importance of communication and as such have devalued our language. Words are powerful things and so we should pay careful attention, seeking to understand others and to communicate constructively.

Overcoming the Fear

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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.

Living Skilfully – The Artistic Science

As a physicist I have two options in life: to pursue fact – seeing the universe in black and white where everything comes with a yes or no answer; or to pursue truth – acknowledging the realms indescribable by science and to view our cosmos in a haze of colour. Both methods have positives and negatives; they may even initially seem similar but are fundamentally different.

The former allows us to fully grasp our area of research, to essentially box up each segment of reality into an understandable and potentially controllable sub-section. However the ‘black & white’ scientist will never truly appreciate what he is viewing. He will obtain results which will vastly further the cause of science and can be used to benefit humanity, but he will never see the beauty of it – as beauty is meaningless to him. Furthermore, though he avoids the distraction of the arts, he will never be able to put the puzzle of our world together because he’s missing half of the pieces.

The latter enables more creativity; to explore more controversial and original ideas. Yet this creativity also disrupts our clarity, causing confusion and sometimes a lack of direction. Freed from the single dimension of the physical we can explore the realms of the emotional, the relational, the concepts of beauty and philosophy – our universe has exponentially increased and with it, our potential. This allows us to truly embrace the meaning of science and moreover how it fits into life as a whole. Through such artistic science, instead of disregarding the arts we see where these dimensions overlap and how they can complement one another. Understanding the nature of humanity and the world we live in yields profound insight into how we do science today and moreover how we live our lives.

I would like to find out what it really means to explore our world, to approach learning, describing and creating in their purest forms – outside of the lines we’ve drawn around them. Questions race through my mind: How do we live skilfully? How do we take every opportunity, every experience, every thought captive and turn them to living life to its fullest? No longer should we remain bound by the chains that keep us in our one-dimensional thought. Like a painter using only one colour, we are lost without contrast, without the weaving of hue and shade. Science, literature, music, philosophy, all these things are beautiful but alone they are simply a single stroke of the brush, a lonely fleck of paint, on what could be a masterpiece.

No matter who or what you are the challenge is this: Will you seek to make your passion, your life, all that it can be?  Or will you continue painting in a single shade?

This blog is my journey on what it is to be an artistic scientist – to live life skilfully. I don’t claim to have any great knowledge or wisdom as yet, but I hope you’ll come with me in seeking it out. Please feel free to comment your thoughts and views on this as we go along.

Reality is far greater than we think.

(Image courtesy of NASA)

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