Nicola on science

Nicola on science

By Nicola Robey 26/01/11

In her second IdeasTap column, Nicola Robey ponders the gap between science and art. Once upon a time, they walked hand-in-hand, but these days they're like chalk and cheese – or the Bloods and the Crips...

Spending some time with my beloved family has reminded me that the battles between the LA gangs the Crips and the Bloods ain’t got nothin’ on the Robey dinner table.

One side the creatives, the other the scientists: each gallantly defending our passions to the death, or the last After Eight mint – whichever comes first.

The catalyst arrives at the mention of being “floaty” (a wholly unjustifiable description, as I’ve never worn hessian or performed a dance sequence with ribbons) and spirals to full-blown warfare the moment “Mickey Mouse degree” is uttered.

It’s not that we’re violent, or partial to wearing do-rags; it’s just that the separation of the “two cultures” has developed so that we’re often afraid, intimidated or simply disinterested in one another, and this can sometimes lead to disagreement.

It hasn’t always been this way. Creative types and scientists used to get along like a dream; borrow each other’s pencils, sit at the same table in the canteen, etc. In fact there were no clear-cut disciplines whatsoever: hark back to a 17th-century anatomical drawing or peruse that densely bearded gent Darwin’s poetic scribblings, and this is clear.

Take one of the Great Masters, Michelangelo – so impressive that a sewer-dwelling turtle was named after him. Often found dangling from the roof of the Sistine Chapel with protractors and abacuses falling out of his pockets, he epitomised the accomplishment of both domains; that, or he had no friends and far too much caffeine.

When it comes to establishing these divisions, education has a lot to answer for, perching Science and Maths on a pedestal as “proper subjects”, so they peer down on Art and Music, smugly fanning themselves with periodic tables and text books.

Worryingly, the two bumbling suits in number 10 have proposed drastic cuts to Humanities in education, with an estimated £7.1bn to be axed from university budgets alone. This may reflect their opinion that the arts are not only an easy target, but are considered simply to provide light relief and a chance for the weird kids to sniff PVA or shovel chalk into their mouths – although in fairness I did spend five years at school being forced to draw a pepper in every Art lesson and was guaranteed a B in Music if I could hit the demo button on a keyboard.

Admirably backing down in this fierce, fractured landscape of ours, a number of artists are realising that science can open up exciting avenues. Showcasing an array of artistic and scientific brain-related apparel, the recent Brainstorm exhibition at the GV Art Gallery in London illustrated how the realignment of the two can work to demystify complex theories and provide accessible interpretations that would otherwise be resigned to graph paper.

Four-hundred peppers aside, to be creative is to look beyond what’s in front of you, to seek more than material evidence or solid conclusions. Which is why the two should become allies once more.

Perhaps it’s time for the rigid wall to be worn down once again. Although this may mean that the stereotypes of pocket protectors and corrective shoes on one side and polished mango stones on the other should probably be put to rest.


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