Rethinking stereotypes about science and the arts

Unthinkable: Prof Tom McLeish identifies eight stages of creation common to disciplines as diverse as painting and biology

The idea that science and the humanities are separate, non-overlapping spheres of learning is widely assumed. There are “two cultures”, we are told, each with its own set of methods and values.

It’s a division that has been reinforced by workplace specialisation and the creation of educational silos in schools and colleges.

Tom McLeish was horrified to discover how deep the rift had become when he met groups of secondary-school students in the UK in his role as a visiting university speaker. Many of them were clearly very bright, he said, but had nonetheless dropped all science subjects, as well as maths, before they had turned 17 (indeed 85 per cent of all students in England give up maths at 16).

When asked why they had done so, students commonly replied that they saw “no room for imagination or personal creativity in science”.


The experience convinced McLeish that scientists needed to do a better job communicating exactly how they operated. The result was a new book The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art, published last month by Oxford University Press.

McLeish, professor of natural philosophy at York University’s department of physics, is well-positioned to tackle misperceptions about science, given his research interests stretch from molecular biology to Christian theology.

Just as scientists tend to be quiet about the 'inspiration' phase of their work, artists are a little cagey about the 'laboratory' phase of theirs

He identifies eight stages of creation common to the arts and sciences: vision, desire, industry, constraint, incubation, illumination, verification and arrival. And he explores inventiveness down the ages, suggesting parallels between the evolution of the novel and early experimental science as characterised by individuals such as Robert Boyle, the Waterford-born "father of chemistry".

“This is not saying that science and art are in any sense ‘the same’,” says McLeish, today’s Unthinkable guest, “but pointing out that the human narratives of their creation do bear striking similarities”.

You challenge the idea that science and the humanities are two distinct cultures but isn’t there a real difference in the way they approach truth? Science follows very specific methods aimed at objectivity, whereas the arts seem to revel in the personal and subjective.

Tom McLeish: “I agree with your starting point, but reality is more blurred, entangled and interesting than that. Science does follow some specific methods, but its most important act is to ask imaginative questions – the enquiries that open up new understanding of nature.

“Imagination is all important to the sciences. On the other hand, art is also involved with truth in a broad way. Sartre said once that art needs to present nature to us as if it were the product of human imagination – one gets close to the motivation for science here. It is also not true that artists are unconstrained by nature in what they do.

“Listen to a painter tell you about the long experiences of experimentation to get the canvas ‘right’, or the writer recounting – in private usually – how many drafts of the novel were needed before the characters really cohered.

“So, of course the approach to knowledge in art and science is different, but I find it to be complementary, to share many aspects of process in common.”

If the greatest misconception about science is that it fails to provide an outlet for creativity or imagination, what is the greatest misconception about art?

“That is the idea that ‘artists can do anything they please’ – that they are completely unconstrained. I have heard scientists many times say of artists something like, ‘it’s okay for you – you can make the paint/poem/story do anything you like, but we have to be correct in respect to nature’. But in reality art is very constrained, just like science.

“The greatest creative acts come from the opposing forces of expansive imagination within the tight constraint of form – that is as true of art as it is of science.

“So just as scientists tend to be quiet about the ‘inspiration’ phase of their work, I have sometimes found that artists are a little cagey about the ‘laboratory’ or ‘workshop’ phase of theirs - where they try things out, literally experiment be it with paint, text or musical phrases.

“This workshop stage of producing art can even be described as working with hypotheses on how the artist’s material will work, and finding that those hypotheses require modification in the light of trials.”

You say scientists and novelists have something in common in that they deal with ‘the likelihood of events given preconditions’. Can you explain further?

“Yes - there is something really remarkable going on in the 17th and early 18th century in the birth of both experimental science, in the hands of people like Robert Boyle, and in the invention of the early English novel, from the pens of writers like Daniel Defoe.

“So I think that history provides us with a good starting point here in understanding why experimental science and the novel have always shared a hidden relationship.

“For one thing, it is very hard for us today to get our minds around how counter-intuitive experimental science is. If you haven’t had centuries of it before, or learned about it at school, it is not at all obvious that doing experiments would teach you much about nature.

“Why would something as artificial, abstract and over-simplified have anything to do with the complexities and grandeur of real nature?

“In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe experiments; he puts a man alone - so he believes - on an island, and asks what actions he takes to survive.

“Defoe has to be persuasive; his readers need to be convinced of the account, that it is a likely - if strange - story. In fact, when first published, Defoe claimed it as a true account of real events.

“Readers need to be drawn into novels, to anticipate likely futures as they read so that they can be surprised, horrified, shocked, inspired, and more. The same process of inference goes on with a science experiment. It, too, is a ‘small world’ from which we draw conclusions about the larger story, the larger world, behind it.

“Robert Boyle, as well as outlining experimental method in his early works on gases and chemistry - note the Skeptical Chemyst is the title! - is as keen to point out that scientists are interpreters of what they see. He also, incidentally, advocated a sort of lay-science by which everyone takes notes of their daily observations and interprets what they see.

“As a final twist to the early modern history of science and the novel, while novels were presented as factual accounts, some early science was framed as ‘useful fictions’, Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe being perhaps the best example.”

Which artist in history, do you think, best understood or best appreciated science?

"If we are talking about mathematical sciences, then Johann Sebastian Bach needs to step forward. His unsurpassed grasp of abstract structure, logical yet at the same time aesthetically satisfying, and creative of whole universes of musical form – that must stand for all time as a monument to the beauty of mathematical ideas, and as reflective of an understanding beyond compare."

* Joe Humphreys’ philosophy column is moving to a new home in Thursday’s Arts and Ideas pages.


Ask a sage:

Question: What's more important, the question or the answer?

Albert Einstein replies: "The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills."