Aesthetics And Curiosity: Bridges Between Science And Art

16/12/2013 16:25 | Updated 15 February 2014

Without creativity artists have the block, a creative drought. Scientists experience the block as well.

Whatever the art form, creativity is its key ingredient. This is also true of science. Scientists go through these creativity deserts. Without an aesthetic fulfilment from their work, scientists dry up too... A period of creative drought is an anaesthetic. The senses are dulled, creativity dissipates and curiosity becomes irrelevant.

Much of what drives scientists is a curiosity to find meaning in the world around them, no matter how massive or minute, how noble or lowly their choice of discipline. They seek to observe and make sense of their surroundings, to be touched by their scientific pursuits, and maybe to touch others too. Is this so different then, to what artists do?

Within science, there is the pretence of objectivity. But when you spend time with scientists you know that decision-making in science is often based on 'feeling'. This 'feeling' about their work is in fact one of the key elements that scientists must learn over their career. It is a form of what Malcolm Gladwell calls 'thin slicing' or 'thinking without thinking': the ability to judge and analyse a multitude of variables so fast that it becomes a sensory experience. This is where the aesthetics of science are learnt.

We separate science and art, we give them different social domains. Art pursues the intangible, science pursues "truth". The two worlds of art and science are typically kept separate by these supposed distinctions. Both are about our construction of meaning.

Of course, you can argue that science has provided us with electricity, aircraft, penicillin... All signs of progress, of social advancement. But many of the most useful scientific discoveries that define modern human societies came about because scientists were curious. In her text "The usefulness of useless knowledge" Maria Popova underlines this important characteristic of science. Without thinking about the purpose of their endeavours, scientists driven purely by curiosity made discoveries that ultimately changed our societies.

The physicist Brian Cox has advocated for 'curiosity driven science'. To many scientists, this is a tautology. Why else would you be a scientist if it were not for curiosity? Take away the aesthetic fulfilment from their work, the liberty to be curious, and what you are left with is the mundane, routine, irritating, political and boring parts of day-to-day jobs that kill creativity, and lead to scientists' block.

The bridges between art and science should be valued. The market economy of return-on-investment-science means the creative pursuit of seemingly useless knowledge, aka curiosity driven science, will fall by the wayside. In funding and organising scientific disciplines, curiosity is central for scientists to maintain their creativity. The long term impact of science has proved its worth countless times. A space for pursuing seemingly useless scientific pursuits, where their 'impact' on society is as yet unknown, is absolutely necessary and valuable. It will feed scientists' aesthetic needs, lead to creative paradigm leaps and social advancement. Let's value science as another form of art and keep the creative juices going.

This blogpost originally appeared on Michelle's blog Notes from the research frontier