Scientists or artists? Out in the world, considering unknowns, they share a surprising number of traits.

Scientists or artists? Out in the world, considering unknowns, they share a surprising number of traits.

Is a zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes?

Hard to say, especially if you’re looking at a bunch of them standing together. The funny thing is that I sometimes have the same essential question as I split my time between flocks of scientists and artists. They’re both trying to understand new ideas about the universe, even as they probe the unknown with different tools and techniques

Artists and scientists are searchers. Each is looking, scratching, trying to figure things out. They seek clues to elusive explanations, pursuing unknowns with the hard earned life experiences they bring with them. What do they seek to uncover? The potentials are endless and could be anything. The point here is that people in both groups are interested in uncovering something true. Scientists pursue things that require them to poke and prod, test and examine. They try to understand how the things work and why. And artists?  They’re basically doing the same thing. In novels, in paintings, in choreographic flights of abandon, artists are looking to reveal things that transcend technique in pursuit of ideas that resonate.

People get stuck on the stylistic and technical differences between scientists and artists. To me that’s silly. It’s like saying that woodwinds and strings have little in common simply because they’re morphologically different, that they generate sound through different kinds of apparatus. Where the day-to-day practices and tools of science are different from the arts, the motivations are often the same.

It’s interesting to be part of the process with serious practitioners from each world. They both tend to fiddle with ideas until those ideas gain enough clarity to make fiddling less compelling. Scientists and artists both tend to geek out on their tools, from computers to software to paint brushes to laboratory equipment. They both can debate their points of view with fierce determination. When an artist goes about actually working on a piece of art, he or she fundamentally spends time and effort in the guts of technique, in the mechanics of doing the craft. It’s never enough to simply “emote” to create meaningful. There’s always a work process that requires physical acts, technical precision, specific choices and labor. A similar thing happens for scientists. In the exploration of questions big or small, most of a scientist’s time is spent pursuing tedious details, replicating procedures, setting up processes, cleaning or preparing or calibrating or organizing. Inspirational thinking—for scientists and for artists—takes up the least amount of working time.

Yet it’s that inspirational fire that drives both groups to do what they do.

Science needs the arts and arts needs the sciences. More to the point, greater culture needs healthy conditions for both. Without the arts and sciences thriving simultaneously, culture can never be more than a day-to-day monotony, without purpose.

Finally, let me just clarify one last thing. Most zoologists consider zebras to be black with white stripes. But when you see one that’s red all over, it probably has a sunburn.


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