bioephemera

Artists who invent (and patent)

I’ve been remiss in not recommending my temporary Scienceblogs scibling “Art and Science Learning” to those of you who are, like me, interested in the sciart intersection. However, I have to say I am not 100% behind its latest (and quite popular post), by Robert Root-Bernstein. It starts,

Most people are at a loss to be able to identify any useful connections between arts and sciences. This ignorance is appalling.

Hmmm. Do you think that’s really true, much less “appalling”?

I’m not so sure. I do think it’s true that people tend to view arts and sciences as distinct disciplines, which is why CP Snow’s “two cultures” framing has had such longevity. But the examples Root-Bernstein cites to inform those people who “at a loss to be able to identify any useful connections between arts and sciences” are practical inventions and applications: pixel displays, programmable looms, computer chip etching, false coloring of raw space data, camouflage.

It’s a great list of examples, and arts educators should definitely bookmark it for reference the next time their grant application is denied or they have to defend a local arts program. But is it hard for most people to accept that artists and performers invent new technologies in their areas of practice? Of course an experienced visual artist would have useful input into a new technology for displaying graphics. It makes intuitive sense that musicians will be frustrated by old instrument technology and respond by inventing alternatives, that Eddie Van Halen will patent a guitar support, that Michael Jackson has a patent on an invention to help you moonwalk, and that – in one of Root-Bernstein’s other examples – a singer will invent a laryngoscope.

The harder case to make, I think — the case Root-Bernstein’s post doesn’t squarely address — is that creative training is useful in basic science, in areas of research far afield of one’s artistic calling and activities, because it builds broadly applicable skills in seeing patterns, trying unorthodox solutions, and approaching problems in interdisciplinary ways.* I think the most interesting example in Root-Bernstein’s post is that of actress Hedy Lamarr, who made a significant contribution to frequency-hopping (and patented a means of “secret communication”). Lamarr wasn’t solving a practical problem in her area of expertise. Her collaborator, George Antheil, brought his musical performance expertise to bear on their invention, but Lamarr’s acting talents don’t have obvious relevance to the problem. Lamarr already stands for the proposition that gorgeous women can actually have brains (shock!) and apply them in the traditionally male-dominated fields of math and engineering. Maybe she also stands for the proposition that intelligent, creative people will find outlets in multiple disciplines – art and science. Did her training in the performing arts help her make the intuitive leap to the frequency-hopping solution she and Antheil patented? Or was it her natural creativity suited her to both art and science? That’s the chicken-and-the-egg question that applies to polymaths like Vladimir Nabokov or Leonardo da Vinci, and that’s what I think is most mysterious about artists who invent. I’m sure Root-Bernstein, a researcher in creativity, has thought about the issue, and I hope to see him post on the topic.

More on art, science, and learning at – you guessed it – Art of Science Learning.

*this is not to imply that applied science isn’t just as important as basic science – they’re both important, and not really distinct from one another.