The novelist and chemist C.P. Snow wrote of the sciences and arts as “Two Cultures”, with those working in one increasingly unlikely to understand the other. Nevertheless, these two pillars of civilization have much in common, and the arts often play a crucial part in speeding up scientific progress. Last year, a symposium at the National Academy of Sciences explored examples of this synergy and the reasons behind it. The talks given there have now been turned into papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The introduction to the event, known as the Sackler Colloquium, was given by influential computer scientist Professor Ben Shneiderman. Shneiderman pointed to recent examples demonstrating the value of artistic pursuits for scientists. “Musically trained physicians not only hear more when using stethoscopes and chest percussion than non-musicians, but make more accurate diagnoses,” he said. “Similarly, visual arts training improves the ability to read X-rays and other radiological images.”
Some of the evidence for these benefits have been around for a while. A 2008 study of science Nobel Prize winners demonstrated most had considerable talent in at least one of the following: music, literature, or visual art. Perhaps more surprisingly, they had usually kept these up, despite the time pressures required to make the breakthroughs they achieved.
Interesting as it may be to show how artists often make the best scientists, the more important questions are why and how can we use this information to encourage further scientific progress.
The Colloquium discussed different ways the arts influence scientific progress. Besides the above noted development of valuable skills through artistic training, exposure to art and design can “expand the range of thinking for scientists and engineers,” Shneiderman wrote. Engineering advances also often occur in response to demand from artists for better tools.
One paper described quizzing high-achieving scientists on the “tools for thinking” they use to solve problems, for example visual imagining, use of physical models, thought experiments, and analogies. The study found direct correlations between scientific achievements (such as the number of patents filed) and engagement with musical composition and metalworking. It also showed that scientists who used certain thinking tools previously shown to be developed by these activities scored higher on the same measures of achievement, suggesting the development of these modes of thinking may be part of how the arts encourage science.
Shneiderman noted that the divide between the sciences and arts Snow referred to was at the time new. When President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences, the body whose journal published these papers, its charge was to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.” Perhaps Lincoln knew something that was subsequently forgotten, but we might be in the process of rediscovering.