Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.
I was walking through the science faculty’s section of my university campus the other day, impressed with a state-of-the-art new building and renovated classrooms with their “collaborative learning hubs”— round tables for tutorials with connections for charging electronic devices, and even laptops provided.
It’s so far away from the arts building, in both distance and facilities, it’s like a separate world.
It seems whenever I hear talk of a “clever country” in Australia or calls for more money for research, they’re talking only about the sciences.
I wonder how we got to this point in which our society so deeply divides arts from sciences, and “arts people” from “science people”, even at school. After all, sciences developed from arts, from those with the imagination and bravery and tenacity to investigate the world and how it works.
It seems to me that investigating the world and how it works is also the work of artists. In great artists, I see scientific qualities, and in great scientists, highly developed artistic qualities, too.
Leonardo Da Vinci, artist AND scientist, had it right. In art he found science, and in science, he found art. He appreciated the qualities in both and understood that the line between them was a blurry one, if it existed at all.
In reality, beyond stereotyped media and ideology-fuelled governments, there are many artist-scientists. I was reminded of this recently when reading the novel The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason (Picador 2002). The novel, inspired by a true story, takes place in the 1880s and is set in the remote highlands of the Shan States of Myanmar (then Burma). A British piano tuner is employed by the War Office to travel there from dreary London to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer. Apart from being a wonderful adventure story, the novel is interesting in that its author, Mason, was a medical student at the time of publication. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard, and had written much of the novel while working for a year along the Thai-Myanmar border on malaria research . I googled Mason and found that he went on to specialise in psychiatry, but is still writing fiction. He’s combining both careers effectively, as this recent event shows.
Other artist-scientists who come to mind are the Australian writer Colleen McCullough, who studied neurophysiology and worked in research and teaching at Yale University in the US; and the great British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was a qualified apothecary assistant.
And in our cultural life, various practices are a mixture of art and science. Think of gardening and cooking, for example.
When did we start making such strong divisions between science and arts, or even thinking that one field was “cleverer” than the other? In my last year of school, I studied English, German, history, geography and…chemistry. It took me a lot of insistence at school to be allowed to do chemistry, because it didn’t “fit” the rest of my course, but I wanted to have a science in there. When I was doing my bachelor of arts degree in the 1980s, you could still do a BA majoring in mathematics or psychology, interestingly. On the other hand, the engineering faculty was overwhelmingly male, as was the field of higher degrees in any of the sciences. There’s a photograph of my mother in her PhD graduation day march with the other graduates in medical fields: she is the only female in the photo, yet it was the late 1980s.
In the 1980s, too, some vocational degrees started trying to introduce and acknowledge the validity of arts. For example, engineering students had at least one arts unit as part of their BE, albeit one specially adapted for them. Sadly, these arts units were the subject of scoffing and ridicule among engineering students of the time who had, they thought, more important things to do. I was told bluntly by one engineering student that “anyone” could do an arts degree, whereas an engineering degree was much more difficult.
This attitude remains, particularly in the press and in government circles. I think it’s time to revive the arts, to correct assumptions that arts subjects are easier than sciences, or are for people who aren’t good enough to get into science courses. I’d like to see the arts and science overlap much more.
And while it’s not impossible for an arts major to do a science unit or two, or even to do a double degree in some disciplines, it’s not common. But it should be encouraged. Why not a double-degree in physics and comparative literature, for example? French and chemistry? History and neuroscience? Or just cherry-picked electives for the sake of a rounded education. I don’t think it would hurt student doctors, for example, to do a couple of units of English literature, writing, art history, French or politics, say.
And me? I’d like to revisit high school mathematics and I’d like to learn physics.