The Science of Art…

And other reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of “The Two Cultures”

Last Thursday was the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture, “The Two Cultures,” which described a divide between scientists and “literary intellectuals” such as novelists, poets, and philosophers.

The half-centennial provoked only a limited amount of media coverage.
, New Scientist, the Financial Times, and the Telegraph all opined on the current relevance of Snow’s work. Each noted that “The Two Cultures” thesis was controversial from the outset and “has been turned over and pulled apart by commentators from all points on the academic and political compass for nearly half a century.” On the other hand, commentators seemed to agree that Snow’s central worries—the state of education and concern for the world’s poor—remain just as important today.

Most, however, argued that the divide between scientists and literary intellectuals is outdated (if it ever existed at all). One article in Nature suggested that “the real enemy of understanding is not these ‘Two Cultures’ but specialization in all disciplines.” Another said it is the division between “optimists and pessimists.” At any rate, scientists and writers are certainly more familiar with one another than they used to be.

One might point to the rise of researcher-run blogs at popular news outlets, for example. But, as much of the anniversary coverage pointed out, Snow was not as worried about scientists understanding literature as he was about literary figures understanding science. On that count, too, he would be pleased by current norms. The Financial Times, for instance, described the proliferation of science fiction since Snow’s day, as well as the emergence of “straight” literary writers who regularly “grapple with science.”

Much more interesting than these retrospective commentaries, however, was an was an event in Manhattan on Monday titled, “Artists & Science Writers – Finding Common Ground.” It was a fascinating exploration about how journalists, a playwright, a visual artist, and a dance choreographer are trying to better understand, communicate, and “humanize” science. Co-hosted by the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Science & the Arts program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), it was billed as a performance in “three acts.”

In the first act, Mariette DiChristina, the NASW president and acting editor-in-chief of Scientific American, spoke with Arthur Giron, who has authored such scientifically relevant plays as Flight, about the Wright brothers; Emilie’s Voltaire, about the French philosopher and his mistress; and Moving Bodies, about physicist Richard Feynman.

DiChristina and Giron read and discussed scenes from each. Giron’s trick is to couch simple, scientific references in dramatic dialogue. “My job is to get information internalized emotionally so you remember it for the rest of your life,” he told the audience. But, in order to be true to both the science and his art, he must “bathe” himself in facts. He will, for instance, read a stack of books in order to include a single line such as one in the Feynman play that criticizes René Descartes for being a theoretical, rather than experimental, scientist.

For Giron, art is a vehicle to help understand science. For others, it is sometimes the other way around. In the second act of Tuesday’s event, for instance, Wall Street Journal science reporter Robert Lee Hotz talked with Justine Cooper, a visual artist who works with a number of different media. Cooper has used scanning electronic microscopes to “photograph” hair, skin, and other organic materials; MRI imaging to create video representations of the human body; and DNA to create sculptures. But her goal was not to illuminate science.

“I was trying to use the technologies in a way that scientists wouldn’t,” Cooper said. In fact, she thinks of her art as a foil for explanatory art projects such as the Visible Human Project (or perhaps the Bodies Exhibition, though she didn’t actually mention it).

Eventually, however, Cooper “went from using the tools of science to being interested in the institutions of science.” She created a mock advertising campaign and Web site for a drug called “Havidol,” (read: have it all) which she sees as a “constructive parody of direct-to-consumer advertising.” And she is now working on a soon-to-be-released blog and photo exhibit for a family of hospital practice dummies, which she says is “about well being and the pathologizing of everyday life.” Rather than detracting from medical practice, Cooper hopes both projects will call attention to issues in healthcare.

That was certainly the intent of Ferocious Beauty: Genome, a ballet about modern genetics. The dance is meant to evoke questions about “evolution, aging, and the nature of perfection,” according to choreographer Liz Lerman. But there is an explanatory element, too. “I didn’t know anything about genetics, but I thought that if I wrote a play about it, I would,” Lerman told science author and New York Times Magazine contributor Robin Marantz Henig in the third act of Tuesday’s event. In fact, Lerman had read a book of Henig’s about Gregor Mendel, one of the field’s pioneers, while doing research for the performance.

Lerman spoke eloquently about the similarities between journalism and choreography. Both are works of art that help “reveal gaps in your knowledge,” and for which it is often difficult to choose what information to include and exclude. She also explained the narrative necessity of having small frames, which hold people’s interest in a story, as well as big ones, which give the story meaning. And finally, she described how her audiences get “excited about their capacity to understand something,” and that it is OK for them to struggle with difficult concepts, so long as there is a “cue from the stage that that struggle is expected.”

Indeed. As Hotz put it, “The practice of art and science is a single minded focus on discovery.” One without the other would not work. Thankfully, the pursuit of common ground has been going on for awhile, and progress has been made.

In just the last couple of years, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin has catalogued a number of excellent, scientific art projects at his Dot Earth blog. Doctor Atomic, an opera about nuclear-bomb designer Robert Oppenheimer, has been well received around the U.S. and Europe. And Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which Lerman choreographed, contained one of the best two-cultures analogies I’ve ever heard: “Biology without evolution is like a character without a plot.”

There are, of course, many barriers and divisions left in academia. But if that line alone doesn’t warm C.P. Snow in his resting place, I don’t know what would.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.