Art Can Be a Gateway to Science

19/04/2015 22:50 BST | Updated 19/06/2015 10:59 BST

Every so often, whenever the arts are threatened with further government cuts, Winston Churchill starts trending on my Twitter timeline. Everyone knows the quote by now - asked whether the arts should be cut to fund the war effort, he responds with the snappy: "Then what are we fighting for?" Only he never said that. It sounds about right. It swings with enough Churchillian swagger to feel authentic. But, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

You would have an easier job ascribing that quote to the American physicist Robert Wilson. Questioned before Congress' Joint Committee on Atomic Energy about the 'value' of building a new particle accelerator, Wilson responded that it had no value in terms of security, defence or military application. Since the Manhattan Project it had become quite normalised to discuss scientific funding in the same breath as weapons development. Wilson spoke against the tide. The scientific knowledge brought about by this new accelerator Wilson placed alongside art, sculpture and poetry.

"It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending." - Robert Wilson

Wilson was a scientist who appreciated art. His sculpture is dotted around the grounds of Fermilab where he was director. His influence in the lab's architecture is strongly apparent. He understood the power of art to communicate complex thoughts - to symbolically represent an idea, rather than prove it.

Wilson was not alone amongst Manhattan Project scientists who understood the value of art. Richard Feynman was an accomplished artist whose passion for drawing came from a desire to communicate 'scientific awe'. Robert Oppenheimer's brother, Frank - uncle of the atomic bomb - understood the common role of scientist and artist. To him they were the 'noticers' of society, without whom stars would remain blobs in the sky and human faces would remain a mystery. Without science to explain and art to interpret, then we would know nothing and nothing would be done. Frank Oppenheimer was a great scientific communicator - his Exploratorium in San Francisco has become a template for science museums across the globe, combining science, art and education in a way that excites and inspires.

Art that engages with science, or chooses to explore scientific themes and understanding, can best be understood in terms of Wittgenstein's Ladder. It is the lie that shows the way to truth. Plays such as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, my Oppenheimer or Complicité's A Disappearing Number are not truth - they are not documentary. What they do is introduce a scientific figure or a scientific idea, tether it to the structures of story and drama, and introduce an otherwise unknown aspect of history to a new audience. The same can be said for the recent films inspired by the lives of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing.

A recent article in the Telegraph bemoaned the co-opting of science by artists in the service of entertainment. The argument went that history should be left to historians and science to the scientists. But science, history and art cannot and should not be so easily compartmentalised - the barriers between them should remain porous, allowing for greater understanding. Are we seriously supposed to reject Homer's The Iliad because it fictionalises the Trojan War? Do we bin Shakespeare's history plays because of historical inaccuracy? How many people have been inspired to learn more about the court of Henry VIII thanks to Hilary Mantel? Art can be a gateway to both history and science - to those already through the gateway it may appear as though art sullies and besmirches the truth, but they have no understanding what it is like on the other side of the wall. Let art be the beginning of the conversation, not the end. Benedict Cumberbatch has not replaced Alan Turing, he has introduced him to people who would otherwise have remained ignorant.

To return to Richard Feynman, he has a wonderful argument about how science can only add to the wonder of the natural world. An artist friend of his complains that science reduces a flower's beauty to dull chemical reactions and biology. Feynman cannot understand how scientific knowledge diminishes, surely it only adds? I would say the argument works also in reverse - art does not diminish the science it depicts, it can only add. The science after all remains - the history remains - and now we have the art too. Bonus.

Oppenheimer is on at the Vaudeville Theatre, London