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Art of Science and Technological Innovations

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The official blog of the British Columbia Association of Community Music Schools

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Art of Science and Technological Innovations

 I've just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences are actively engaged in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be an artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art with their scientific creativity.
From "the Art of Science and Learning"
Most people are at a loss to be able to identify any useful connections between arts and sciences. This ignorance is appalling. Arts provide innovations through analogies, models, skills, structures, techniques, methods, and knowledge. Arts don't just prettify science or make technology more aesthetic; they often make both possible.

That cell phone or PDA you're carrying? It uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to ensure your messages can't easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by the composer George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really. The electronic screen that displays your messages (not to mention the ones on your computer and your TV), they employ a combination of red, green, and blue dots from which all the different colors can be generated. That innovation was the collaboration of a series of painter-scientists (e.g., American physicist Ogden Rood and German Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald) and post-impressionist artists such as Seurat - you know, the guy who painted his pictures out of dots of color, just like the ones in your electronic devices.... The first programmable device was invented by J. M. Jacquard to control the looms that made his tapestries and exactly the same technique was used to program the first computers. He also made the first digital image - out of black and white threads. In fact, the computer chips that run virtually all our devices today are made using a combination of three classic artistic inventions: etching, silk screen printing, and photolithography. Data from NASA and NSA satellites is enhanced using artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro (a Renaissance invention) and false coloring (the Fauvists) to increase the contrast so it's easier to perceive the important information. Artists figured out how to hide information, too. Camouflage was invented by the American painter Abbot Thayer, who was unable to convince Teddy Roosevelt to use it in the Spanish American war. By WWI, however, painters such as the Vorticists in England and the Cubists in France were co-opted by their governments to design prints to protect troops, equipment, and planes.

In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a heart transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room. That pace maker you use: it's a simple modification of a musical metronome. If you have a neurological deficit, your neurologist may employ dance notation to analyze your problem. The stent that was implanted in your aorta to keep it open, that was designed using the principles of origami.

Oh, and that bridge you drove over on the way to work: good chance its design was invented by an artist. Princeton engineering professor David Billington and Smithsonian historian Brooke Hindle have shown that most of the innovations in bridge design have originated with artistically trained engineers such as John Roebling and Robert Maillart. In fact, there's a long tradition of artists- turned-inventors in the US. You probably didn't know that Samuel Morse (telegraph) and Robert Fulton (steam ship) were among the most prominent American artists before they turned to inventing (visit the Smithsonian American Art Galleries some time). You are probably also ignorant of the fact that Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist whose invention of the telephone began with a simple musical game. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes don't just provide us with unusual architectures, they also inform our understanding of cell and virus structure that permits new biomedical insights. Geodesic domes led to the invention of a new kind of chemical nanoparticle called "Buckminsterfullerene," which is the basis of new medicines. Kenneth Snelson's tensegrity sculptures (stroll past his "Needle Tower" outside the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden on the Mall) aren't just fascinating, they've also created a whole new form of engineering. Biologists have even found that it's principles explain the shapes of cells. Google it!

In fact, I've just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences are actively engaged in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be an artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art with their scientific creativity.

Moreover, those folks who produce the new patentable inventions and found the new companies to produce them - they, too, are artistically trained: they are far more likely to have continuous participation in drawing, painting, dancing, woodworking, metal working, and mechanics than their less innovative peers. Ninety percent of them, in interviews, expressed the opinion that the arts should be part of every scientists and technologists education. Eighty percent of them could point to specific ways in which their arts training directly enhanced their innovative ability.

In sum, successful innovators in sciences and technology are artistic people. Stimulate the arts and you stimulate innovation.

Bob Root-Bernstein, Ph. D.
MacArthur Fellow
Professor of Physiology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824 USA

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