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Art and Science, Wonder and Wisdom

If there’s one website I never seem to tire of, it’s Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. “A subjective lens on what matters in the world and why”, Popova’s curation of articles are consistently thought-provoking and inspirational (to the point where my Twitter feed is replete with pieces from her site!) A place of intellectual, creative, and spiritual exploration, Brain Pickings is what I aspire Ekostories to be. While I write through an environmental lens, I am striving to emulate Popova’s approach, to draw insight from a range of disciplines and convey a connective whole.

One recent article that caught my eye was titled Art & Science: Leonard Shlain on Integrating Wonder and Wisdom. As someone who has spent his life moving between these two modes, I was naturally intrigued by what Shlain, a surgeon, had to say. Popova highlights a series of illuminating quotes from the book – I would like to share some of them with you today:

Art And Science: Navigating The Human Psyche

“A surgeon is both an artist and a scientist… Surgeons rely heavily on their intuitive visual-spatial right-hemispheric mode. At the same time, our training is obviously scientific. Left-brained logic, reason, and abstract thinking are the stepping-stones leading to the vast scientific literature’s arcane tenets. The need in my profession to shuttle back and forth constantly between these two complementary functions of the human psyche has served me well for this project.”

– Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the works of two artists using art to communicate ideas of nature, wonder, and stewardship. Greg Mort’s creations juxtapose the mundane with the cosmic, while Arie van’t Riet uses technology to bring hidden realms to light. Both blend technical expertise with keen aesthetics to create artwork that raise awareness about the world we inhabit.

Art and Science: Remembering Core Common Ground

“While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.”

– Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics

All too often this fundamental common ground is forgotten, facilitated early on in life when we labelling others or ourselves as “being  good” at one over the other. Such segregation breeds ignorance and narrow-minded stereotypes – Science is for nerds. Art is for creative dreamers. This form of compartmentalization, internal and external, conscious and subversive, diminishes us as well-rounded human beings.

The thing is, I think we innately know better as children. As I wrote in The Art of Connection: We Are Stardust, “[the] fusion of visual splendour with grounded science reminds me, once again, of the interdependence between humanity’s two great disciplines, that they emerge from the same wellspring of curiosity and creativity.” Many of us just need a reminder as adults.

Art and Science: Reconciling Reality

“[Through] the complementarity of art and physics … these two fields intimately entwine to form a lattice upon which we all can climb a little higher in order to construct our view of reality. Understanding this connection should enhance our appreciation for the vitality of art and deepen our sense of awe before the ideas of modern physics. Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality: They are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom.”

– Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics

In Reconciling Time, Creating Meaning, one of the aspects I enjoyed about Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was her interpretation and treatment of science as an artist. The above passage by Schlain connects me back to a recurring metaphor in that novel as Shevek, a physicist and the protagonist of the story, struggles to develop a unified theory on time. Like real-world thinkers who struggled to determine whether light was a particle or a wave, Shevek comes to realize that neither the theory of “Sequency” (linear time) or “Simultaneity” (cyclical time) fully captures how time functions. Rather than choosing one explanation over the other, Shevek sees that they are two different but complementary facets of a single reality – the arrow and the circle, the wave and the particle, art and science. In both Le Guin’s novel and in real life, embracing contradiction and complexity is a necessary step towards developing a more complete understanding of the world.

There’s a lot more meat in Popova’s post – I encourage you to check out the piece in its entirety and join me in checking out Shlain’s work. Happy reading!

Related Ekostories:

Featured image from The Imaginary Foundation

9 Comments

  1. I agree that art and science are a duality that heightens our perceptions and experiences of being alive which then leads to wonder. The hemispheres of our brains working in tandem are meant to be complimentary. Somewhere along the line, we (in the West) have decided to prioritize the left side of the brain over whole brain thinking and perceiving. I believe that this helps to explain why people feel disconnected to nature. Although I am an artist now, I began my university education as a biology major. There was something about the hard materiality of science as it was taught then that did not satisfy me. I reacted against dissecting everything into the smallest irreducible part and instead found wonder in knowing that life was mysterious and full of interconnections. I realized then that science and art are not that different from one another. Each discipline may employ approaches that seem at first blush to be polar opposites, but it is interesting to see (if given the chance) how much science and art can overlap. Thanks for the “Brain Pickings” tip…I will check it out.

    • It’s interesting to note that many great thinkers in history are polymaths – (which in Greek means, having learned much). Is there a way that the education system can help cultivate more polymaths and integrative thinkers/doers? I think so if we make it a goal.

      I think you’ll enjoy Brain Pickings 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  2. I also subscribe to Brain Pickings. I love the idea of the scientist as an artist. The wonder of discovery is not limited to any one field. But juxtaposing the two (using found objects in nature to showcase the beauty of nature) makes this point even clearer.

    • I also love the idea of both 🙂 Both are explorers of reality, and while their tools are different, their motivations are quite similar.

  3. Great gems Isaac. I always love the synergies of contrasting disciplines. I am not a scientist but someone who had to get her 2nd university degree in…library science after undergrad. in English literature. I was in minor shock..and wondered it the path of wholistic thinking had become a strait jacket for me.

    When I started work after university, I realized the logical thinking that is required to design information systems, lacked the human requirement of creative thinking to solve information problems –which is content sometimes pulled from completely different disciplines not necessarily familiar to the client.

    Synergy of art and science requires participants to cross into worlds unfamiliar to them at times..but they continue the journey because it is precisely the discovery of new ideas and solutions that is the magnet.

  4. Hi Jean, thanks for sharing your experience. Do you think then library science as a field could improve if it incorporated creative thinking? Or is it something where logical thinking should still reign supreme?

  5. Library information science is formally a social science, which has elements of qualitative analysis as well as quantitative analysis. Logical thinking only reigns supreme in initially designing the framework or vessel for the information. But that vessel or repository needs to be logical in terms of conceptualizing or expressing in “common language” word markers and visual post signs to help a user navigate well, while they try search statements/strings. It gets way more complicated with diverse, contrasting groups of users with different literacy levels and expertise.

    Outside of that, it is creative but only if the user allows themselves time to browse, explore..which can be difficult if the system is linear and lacks ability to present different snapshot overviews of a broad word concept made of subsets.

    What I have to frequently remind our systems programmer is that users sometimes choose a non-linear, yet legitimate way to find information. We have to ensure we provide them superefficient ways to get out of the maze.

    The biggest difference between pure programmers/systems design folks vs. information intermediaries like myself, is that the latter must live with creative problem-solving for/with the users, whereas systems design folks..build and leave. They’re just around for technical troubleshooting, not on deal understanding birds-eyeview the ever-changing content and meaning of that content. Most of the time, they have no idea what the content means and how it sits in relation to other subject disciplines, other formats (audio, video, paper stuff not yet digitized). They are not around to witness beside the person how different people solve problems, think creatively, have different translations of the same word that they use for searching.

    I

    • Very interesting comment about the difference between systems designers and information intermediaries. The notion of developing a static solution for an abstract problem versus negotiating the evolving conditions of a dynamic system. Relating back to art and science – I think I can see the appeal and challenges behind both ways of thinking or modes of operating. Thanks for giving me something to think about 🙂

  6. What library science can benefit is far better BOLDER and swashbuckling expression of its creative problem-solving that already exists within the profession and among some practitioners.

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