Artists, scientists alike seek to understand world

Science is concerned with physical things. Science is born of questions such as: How many are there? Why do apples fall down? How does a falling thing fall? What shape is it? How big is it? How much does it weigh? Why does that object act that way?

This requires scientists to restrict their attention to a single object or event and study that one object or event carefully. This study may require physical skill and special techniques.

The scientist may have to invent new methods and perfect new skills to conduct his studies. Often studies are done that simply attempt to establish a pattern or direction.

But from this careful, and sometimes lengthy, process the scientist attempts to distill some kind of general understanding about the object or event studied.

This is sometimes called a theory. As it becomes more reliable and useful, it is sometimes called a law.

These general ideas can then be used to compare other similar objects, evaluate the theory further and make predictions about events under certain conditions.

But, overall it appears that scientists begin with some real-world physical object or phenomenon and conclude with a general idea. They turn the world of reality into the world of imagination and thought.

In contrast, art appears to be concerned with ideas. Much of art, including visual art, music, language arts and performance, appears to be born from such matters as religious concepts, political movements, cultural characteristics, imaginary events or social ideals.

This requires the artist to restrict attention and focus on a specific idea to be explored.

Art requires physical skills and special techniques. The artist may have to invent new methods and invent new skills. Often, the artist may make several models, or attempts, to capture the ideas being contemplated into a tangible form.

In the end, the artist creates a physical object that represents his view of an idea. The end product of art is a function of the physical world. It may be visual, audible or palpable, but it is real.

This object can then be used to test the accuracy of the artist’s (and society’s) understanding of the idea, explore the ramifications of the idea, explain the idea more fully to others or even test the truthfulness of the idea.

But the overall conclusion is that artists tend to begin with some nonphysical idea and conclude with a real object or physical manifestation that can be detected by the senses. They turn the imaginary world of ideas into reality.

Thus, it seems that both scientist and artist are concerned with understanding our world, arriving at some form of truth and increasing understanding. Both utilize existing knowledge, personal skill and equipment.

What appears significantly different is that they initiate their mental journeys from separate starting points.

Because of their opposite trajectories, scientists and artists often see themselves as in conflict. But understanding the similarities of the two endeavors enriches each field significantly. This can be especially powerful in educational endeavors where numerous studies and pilot projects have shown that using one approach to study the other is especially effective.

For example, having students write about math or science has increased understanding for many students.

Writing computer programs that artistically animate scientific phenomenon has proven to be an excellent teaching and learning tool. The discipline of assigning an artist to explore a specific scientific concept in an art class leads to greater understanding of both art and science.

I think the world needs fewer engineers and poets who are pigeonholed in their disciplines. We need far more people who understand the relationship between ideas and objects.

The creation of ideas has an effect on the physical world. The creation of objects has an effect on the creation of ideas.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and also CEO of Flaming Moth Productions.


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