The Art of Scientific and Technological Innovations

Most people are at a loss to be able to identify any useful connections between arts and
sciences. This ignorance is appalling. Arts provide innovations through analogies, models, skills,
structures, techniques, methods, and knowledge. Arts don't just prettify science or make technology
more aesthetic; they often make both possible.

That cell phone or PDA you're carrying? It uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to
ensure your messages can't easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by the composer
George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really. The electronic screen
that displays your messages (not to mention the ones on your computer and your TV), they employ
a combination of red, green, and blue dots from which all the different colors can be generated. That
innovation was the collaboration of a series of painter-scientists (e.g., American physicist Ogden Rood
and German Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald) and post-impressionist artists such as Seurat - you know,
the guy who painted his pictures out of dots of color, just like the ones in your electronic devices.... The
first programmable device was invented by J. M. Jacquard to control the looms that made his tapestries
and exactly the same technique was used to program the first computers. He also made the first digital
image - out of black and white threads. In fact, the computer chips that run virtually all our devices
today are made using a combination of three classic artistic inventions: etching, silk screen printing,
and photolithography. Data from NASA and NSA satellites is enhanced using artistic techniques such
as chiaroscuro (a Renaissance invention) and false coloring (the Fauvists) to increase the contrast so
it's easier to perceive the important information. Artists figured out how to hide information, too.
Camouflage was invented by the American painter Abbot Thayer, who was unable to convince Teddy
Roosevelt to use it in the Spanish American war. By WWI, however, painters such as the Vorticists
in England and the Cubists in France were co-opted by their governments to design prints to protect
troops, equipment, and planes.

In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a heart transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room. That pace maker you use: it's a simple modification of a musical metronome. If you have a neurological deficit, your neurologist may employ dance notation to analyze your problem. The stent that was implanted in your aorta to keep it open, that was designed using the principles of origami.

Oh, and that bridge you drove over on the way to work: good chance its design was invented
by an artist. Princeton engineering professor David Billington and Smithsonian historian Brooke
Hindle have shown that most of the innovations in bridge design have originated with artistically
trained engineers such as John Roebling and Robert Maillart. In fact, there's a long tradition of artists-
turned-inventors in the US. You probably didn't know that Samuel Morse (telegraph) and Robert Fulton
(steam ship) were among the most prominent American artists before they turned to inventing (visit
the Smithsonian American Art Galleries some time). You are probably also ignorant of the fact that
Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist whose invention of the telephone began with a simple musical
game. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes don't just provide us with unusual architectures, they also inform our understanding of cell and virus structure that permits new biomedical insights. Geodesic
domes led to the invention of a new kind of chemical nanoparticle called "Buckminsterfullerene," which
is the basis of new medicines. Kenneth Snelson's tensegrity sculptures (stroll past his "Needle Tower"
outside the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden on the Mall) aren't just fascinating, they've also
created a whole new form of engineering. Biologists have even found that it's principles explain the
shapes of cells. Google it!

In fact, I've just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences
are actively engaged in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as average scientist to sing,
dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be an artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and
literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a
musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art with their scientific creativity.

Moreover, those folks who produce the new patentable inventions and found the new
companies to produce them - they, too, are artistically trained: they are far more likely to have
continuous participation in drawing, painting, dancing, woodworking, metal working, and mechanics
than their less innovative peers. Ninety percent of them, in interviews, expressed the opinion that the
arts should be part of every scientists and technologists education. Eighty percent of them could point
to specific ways in which their arts training directly enhanced their innovative ability.

In sum, successful innovators in sciences and technology are artistic people. Stimulate the arts
and you stimulate innovation.

Bob Root-Bernstein, Ph. D.

MacArthur Fellow

Professor of Physiology

Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI 48824 USA

Root Bernstein, R. S., Bernstein, M. and Garnier, H. W. "Correlations between Avocations,
Scientific Style, and Professional Impact of Thirty Eight Scientists of the Eiduson Study," Creativity
Research Journal
8: 115 137, 1995.

Root-Bernstein, R. S. "Art Advances Science," Nature 407: 134, 2000.

Root Bernstein, R. S. "Music, creativity, and scientific thinking," Leonardo 34, no. 1, 63-68, 2001.

Root-Bernstein, R. S. "Sensual chemistry. Aesthetics as a motivation for research." Hyle: The
Journal of the Philosophy of Chemistry
9, 35-53, 2003.

Root-Bernstein, R. S. and Root-Bernstein, M. M. "Artistic Scientists and Scientific Artists: The
Link between Polymathy and Creativity" in Sternberg, Robert, Grigorenko, Elana L., and Singer, Jerome,
L., editors, Creativity: From Potential to Realization (Washington, D. C.: American Psychological
Association, 2004), pp. 127-151.

Root-Bernstein, M. M. and Root-Bernstein, R. S. "Body Thinking Beyond Dance: A Tools for
Thinking Approach," In Overby, Lynette, and Lepczyk, Billie, eds. Dance: Current Selected Research, vol.
5, pp. 173-202, 2005.

Root-Bernstein RS, Lindsay Allen^, Leighanna Beach^, Ragini Bhadula^, Justin Fast^, Chelsea
Hosey^, Benjamin Kremkow^, Jacqueline Lapp^, Kaitlin Lonc^, Kendell Pawelec^, Abigail Podufaly^,
Caitlin Russ^, Laurie Tennant^, Erric Vrtis^ and Stacey Weinlander^. "Arts Foster Success: Comparison
of Nobel Prizewinners, Royal Society, National Academy, and Sigma Xi Members." J Psychol Sci Tech
2008; 1(2):51-63.


More like this

Being a scientist and an artist, I was excited by this article when I started to read it. And I do appreciate the message that you are trying to convey.

However, I did NOT appreciate the tone of the article, for example, "You are probably also ignorant of the fact..."

Being snotty about the facts you wish to present is unhelpful to science's image in the eyes of the general public.

Many people already mistrust science, and a significant part of the reason is that they perceive scientists at as arrogant know-it-alls and/or as socially incompetent.

The whole high and mighty "you-are-ignorant-if-you're-not-a-scientist-like-meeeee" attitude has GOT to go out the window if science is ever going to settle into a trusting relationship with the general public.

I agree with the poster "dd" about the immature snotty tone of the article. This article sounds more of a personal rant than a piece designed to inform and educate.

Wait, buckmisterfullerene is not an invention - it's a discovery. Buckyballs have been produced in soot ever since carbon things started to be burnt. There's good evidence that they can be found in the interstellar medium - they were initially discovered during research into long-chain hydorcarbons in the ISM. And, unless I've missed something, the FDA has approved no drugs which use buckyballs as delivery mechanisms - it is currently uncomfortable with evidence that buckyballs can interfere with DNA repair mechanisms.

The arts don't require justification in practical terms.

By Dave Nicolette (not verified) on 12 Apr 2011 #permalink

I thought the tone was more tongue-in-cheek than arrogant, actually. And very passionate, of course. Although the link between the arts, creativity, and science is obvious to the initiated and practitioners, it's been downplayed by policy makers, funders, and educational administrators. Hence the extremely poor and deteriorating position of the arts in schools. People who have been advocating for the importance of the arts in science for years tend to be adamant. Interestingly, the sciences themselves are also at risk in a system that's increasingly geared to testing just basic math and reading skills. Perhaps the arts advocates and science advocates should join together in an assault on the mono-disciplinary ramparts!

Why try so hard to press a point with twisted examples? Abe Lincoln had a patent, does this imply a link between political and engineering genius?

The term "Renaissance Man" easily applies to the Renaissance men who saw no boundaries between art and science: Da Vinci and Michelangelo being preeminent. The problem is our society. Today we do not value the generalist, only the specialist, and academia, itself, it the biggest culprit. As a result, we try to make awkward links that end up looking more like factoids. Many medical doctors, such as William Carlos Williams, and business men, such as Charles Ives, were known for other pursuits.

In fact, today our specialization ideas are so extreme that whole fields of knowledge have fractured into tiny shards; physics being a classic case. Thus, the trained physicist may find it difficult to find employment in his ultra-narrow specialization despite being well-grounded in general principles.

If we honored creativity as creativity, we wouldn't have the need for these academic debates. The classifications come, in fact, from academia itself. We would have no need for the term "multi-disciplinary fields" if we weren't trying to force knowledge into boxes defined by academicians.

Every example the author has given is actually the scientific application of a fundamental theory, using given materials. Lace-making is applied science. And the fact that there are three primary colors in light is a scientific fact, and that if you aim the three light beams together at equal intensity, our eyes perceive white light, because we actually only have three color sensors in our eyes, for these three primary colors. And to compare this to art? Mixing paints is like the camera negative. Mix primary paint colors together, and you get black, not white. And pointillism led to the invention of the CRT. PLEASE!

The author is missing a fundamental connection. All theoretical scientists are artists. This point is most elegantly made by the physicists/astrophysicists who are currently conjecturing about string theory. At the moment, the entire field is art, and it won't become science until there is some mathematical theory that matches observations in the physical universe.

For those with an interest in how science and art interact, you may want to watch "The Elegant Universe" on PBS. Its free.

The examples the author gives are applied science, or the products that result from the scientist's art, which has become viable theory on which a real-world product can be based. For example, nuclear power stations. :)And the inventions of great scientists are the result of their observations in the physical world, and their ability to take their musings into brand new realms.

This is an interesting article, and contains a great list of innovators who straddle arts and science. I do nonetheless have a few minor quibbles I'd like to point out.

I'm a scientist, and an artist, and I happen to hold a patent too. I agree with 'dd'; I don't think it's ever a good idea to address one's audience with "You are probably also ignorant" of this and that. Your audience here might on the contrary, be particularly interested in the intersection of art and science. (I happen to be a big fan of Hedy Lamarr and Alexander Graham Bell, for instance). I also agree with daen that buckmisterfullerene is not an invention, it's a discovery. Though your ScienceBlogs colleague Jessica Palmer points out that training in the arts are useful for pure science as well (…).

I agree with Palmer on a second point; I'm not convinced that "Most people are at a loss to be able to identify any useful connections between arts and sciences." Both the words 'most' and 'any' seem over-stated. You might think I'm biased by my interests. Or, the fact that many of my colleagues here in our department of physics have artistic pursuits (we have a former opera singer, a concert pianist, and people who pursue visual arts, photography and writing in our small group). Or the fact that most of my friends work in the arts, yet regularly have to employ or even develop a great deal of technology (for instance for graphic design, animation or photography). But I base my skepticism on my teaching experience. I was a TA for a physics for arts students course for many years. It was a very popular course. Many students wanted to learn some physics, but were otherwise impeded by a lack of mathematical ability. They were never at a loss to relate what they learned to their own areas of study and were particularly enthusiastic to to study the intersection between arts and science. What's more, this interest was often cited as their motivation for taking the course in the first place (prior to anything we might have taught them). It's been my experience that most people might know less about the intersection of and interaction between art and science than I do, because it's something I'm obsessed with, but I rarely encounter anyone who thinks this intersection and interaction doesn't exist.

By minouette (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

I must admit I'm a little surprised by the response to this article. Some of the criticisms regarding its tone are fair enough, but several responses carry a bit of this tone themselves. Is this subject really so controversial? And is the fact that we're willing to quibble this way, evidence of the deep divisions to which Eric makes reference in his response?

I'm an arts professional - musician, specifically - who has always had an interest in science. My second love is architecture, which at its best is the perfect marriage of science and art. I have performed in-class presentations on math, physics, acoustics, and astronomy for students in grades 4-12, using my horn to demonstrate physical manifestations of scientific ideas. I have never had any trouble bridging the divide between art and science, nor with communicating with professionals in both arenas - and to minouette's point, neither did my students. This is a problem that professionals create and perpetuate.

I am less interested in debating the minutiae of Mr. Root-Bernstein's specific examples than I am in the ideas he puts forth. The dichotomy between art and science is artificial, recent, and self-defeating. Great scientists think artistically, and great artists think scientifically. When we realize that, and create education systems that support both areas together, we'll make great progress in both disciplines.

By Amy Parks (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

I love this article and yes the tone is a bit terse and also impassioned. Most importantly it's got us all talking, which is great!

Here are some definitions of art:
1. The products of (human) creativity
2. The creation of beautiful or significant things
3. A superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation

I'm an artist, and my current artistic professions are brain research and education. Before that is was orchestral performance. Both science and other arts depend on the assimilation of information from the environment, a rigorous cultivation of technique and methods, and an interpretive expression of assimilated knowledge, left partially to the subjective creativity of the author. I truly believe that science is as much an art as "the arts" when it is cultivated to mastery and expressed with a passion. I'm curious what you all feel about this.

By Bryan Alvarez (not verified) on 13 Apr 2011 #permalink

Might we be overlooking the similarities in the PROCESS of creating art and science? Both begin with inspiration and an idea or hypothesis. In practice that means all sorts of experimentation- controls and variable, and eventually we arrive at the desired result. Most artists/scientists don't have an idea for an end product and let their creativity flow freely- there is an immense amount of effort and refinement in both disciplines.

In my opinion, the similarities in the process seem to connect both disciplines, as previous comments suggest. Although, the general public seems to think of these fields as opposites; so BRAVO to B. RB for some excellent examples of this vital cross-fertilization.

"Systems Science ... denies the value of the separation of science and the humanities. It views these as two sides of the same coin; they can be viewed and discussed separately, but cannot be separated. Science is conceived as the search for similarities among things that appear to be different; the humanities as the search for differences for things that appear to be the same.  Both are necessary. For example, to solve a problem we need to know both (1) in what respects it is similar to problems already solved so that we can use what we have already learned; and (2) in what respects it differs from any problem yet solved so that  we can determine what we must yet learn. Thus the humanities have the function of identifying problems to be solved and science has the function of solving them."

Russell L. Ackoff

By Fernando J. Grijalva (not verified) on 17 Apr 2011 #permalink

I notice that despite the carping about my tone and some of my examples, no one has actually tried to address my challenge of identifying an example other than the ones that I've given of how an art has made possible a new discovery or invention. It's fine to say we all want arts and sciences to work together, and we can claim that arts need to useful justification, but the price for doing so is the system we've got in which the entire budget allocated to NEA is less than what NIH provides to Harvard University for biomedical research. Face some hard facts, people: those controlling budgets want evidence that putting their money into STEAM rather than STEM is a valid investment of very limited resources. Art for art's sake put the arts in the position its in now. Continuing down the same path isn't going to change anything. So quibble all you want: the challenge of coming up with viable strategies for integrating arts into STEM subjects isn't going to be come from carping at me. By all means find the holes in my arguments and challenge my examples and assumptions, but do it in a useful way that provides new avenues of research and better approaches.

I agree with Robert's latest comments. I'm developing a STEAM-based program at my university, and in order to win approval from the faculty (NB: NOT our donors, who tend to be drawn from the ranks of entrepreneurs), I need examples and stories like those he is presenting above. So I'm grateful.

BTW: I once heard someone at a public lecture complain to Skip Gates that he was too sarcastic. Gates: "Sorry, man. But really, I can't apologize for what is just my way of being in the world."

By Del Doughty (not verified) on 19 Apr 2011 #permalink

In seeking to link art to measurable results and outcomes, you are applying a scientific model to art which reduces art to little more than technical innovation or knowledge production. Doing this captures nothing of what is meaningful or important about art. Plato did not find artists threatening because he thought they would invent a pace maker.

Similarly, pointing out that some scientists also do art or visa versa merely demonstrates that people (especially outliers such as laureates) don't fit neatly into disciplinary categories, a fact that is unsurprising. Far worse, you are treating disciplinary labels as valid identifiers for measuring people, even in the absence of any plausible psychological model for doing so, and in the process reifying those disciplinary categories.

I agree that the funding of public arts is deplorable but lets not stoop to reductive measures and poor science to try to fix the problem.

[If you insist on empirical approaches, Scott Stringer pointed out that art and cultural institutions are the number one reason tourists give for why they visit NY. In England, the Tate Modern is the second most visited attraction in the country. People want to see art. Consequently, the arts generate huge secondary and tertiary revenue streams. That alone is reason to continue investing in the arts.]

Hello "The Art of Scientific and Technolical Invnovations" readers!

Here is another great blog for you to enjoy:

The Real Science Experience is a blog written by university students who have come from various backgrounds (and countries) and have followed the Bachelor of Science down different pathways from undergraduates to masters. On this blog we discuss what it is really like to study science at a tertiary level.

Art and science combine to produce the technology we have now.If you can see a gadget,it doesn't just purely discover through science but made with art.