Is It Ok To Be Both A Scientist And An Artist?

Adam Savage has been having a “Ask Adam Anything” blog on the Tested website.

One question that came up was this one from “dork daddy”:

Good morning, Adam. This question is from my brilliant, beautiful, precocious 10 year old daughter, Ellie. I certainly know how I would answer it, but I suspect you’d have a pretty unique and eloquent spin of your own. My daughter has passions and interests that range the entire spectrum. She is a gifted writer, a prolific artist, an enthusiastic athlete and a natural-born scientist. She has so many interests she sometimes feels like she can’t keep up. The question she often asks me as she looks to her own future is this:

Is it possible to be an artist and a scientist at the same time?

Adam didn’t answer it, instead answering a question about teamwork and taking criticism in projects.  while that is an important topic, I think that Adam really missed an opportunity to address a question that is truly important.

The fact is that science education has tended for a long time to emphasize the uncreative aspects rather than the spark required to make new science.  It’s that spark though that makes science great. Especially experimental science.

The creative part of science comes into play in the creation of models. In order to have a model to test, you need to build a model. You can’t just stop by the model shop and pick up a model—no, in real science you have to make these models yourself. You might start off with a terrible model, but you need to start somewhere. Once you have a model, you need an experiment. Sometimes these experiments are simple to see—but other times you need to think of a creative way to collect data. Just look at the LIGO experiment and the detection of gravitational waves as an example. Scientists have to be creative.

Unfortunately, a common idea about the nature of science is that scientists have to follow procedures without using any creativity. In fact, have you ever heard anyone say “I wouldn’t be a good scientist because I’m not creative”? No, instead people say “I’m not any good at math” or “I don’t like following boring procedures.” Yes, there are procedures in science—but that’s not the main objective. Scientists follow procedures so they can reproduce a result that someone else obtained. Procedures are sort of like a map into the wilderness. If you want to explore the unknown, you first have to follow a trail to get to the uncharted regions.

Science Is Creative, Science Classes Are Not

Perhaps the problem with creativity and science is our science classes. What do students do in a chemistry lab? Welcome to lab. Make sure you have your safety goggles and closed-toe shoes. Now carefully measure 2.3 mL of water and add it into the mixture. It goes on and on. Instructions. No wonder students don’t think science is creative.

But wait! If you don’t give students detailed instructions in lab, they are going to mess stuff up—or worse, get hurt—or even worse, fail the lab. It’s not just in chemistry lab that we (instructors) overuse instructions; it happens in physics and biology as well. The problem is that we wish to take our students to the wilderness—but it is an especially long journey. Even with a map, it can take 4 years of classes to get to the cool stuff.

Long before I ever did any engineering or science I was building models.  Scale model kits and some scratchbuilt stuff certainly, but models in my head too.  By the time I was 18 and graduating college I had probably done just about every kind of model construction that you could, in 1978.  I had that as an advantage when I started to do engineering.

I think that one reason that I could do all that is that growing up, my mom was an artist and we had all that creative stuff all around.  So I was exposed to creativity and creating models from an early age. I think that this kind of exposure is vital to being a scientist.

Yes there is a lot plodding through endless data and complicated math.  And collecting even more data, because you never have enough.  All that is meaningless noise if there isn’t any meaning to it.  For that you need a model, and new models require a spark. The spark is what extracts the important from the unimportant in what is realistically a pile of crap.  When you don’t have an idea what things should look like in your head, then how do you know that you are going down the right path.  Without the ability to build models creatively you don’t know what questions to ask or what guesses to make.

Then there’s the experimental side. There’s a true art to making a great experiment. this dates back to the beginnings of modern science in Italy in the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Look at how Leonardo Da Vinci or Galileo Galilei approached what they did. They weren’t alone. In fact every great experiment is a work of art as much as a tool of science.

So the answer is yes, you can be both an artist and a scientist.  In fact there’s no way to avoid being both if you are a true scientist.  The idea that anybody should limit themselves to being one thing or another is rather ridiculous and is pushed by teachers and others who like things in tidy nice neat order with everybody in nice little round holes. But the truly great things com from being the square peg that doesn’t fit in any holes and is itself.  that’s how the limitations of human knowledge get blown away.

Anyway, here’s some comments from some of my scientifically inclined friends in Facebook:

“DaVinci was both. He was actually more of an engineer, I suppose, but he was both a man who dealt in facts and an artist. Being both made him better at both.”

Um, hello? LOL I never set out to be an artist. But I’ve wanted to be a scientist my whole life.”

Yes. Unless you mean artist in the “I threw some spaghetti and a canvas and am charging large quantities of money for it” sense. I work in a science field with people who may or may not have advanced degrees, but who pretty much all think and speak science. We have painters, writers, knitters, sculptors… Our head pathologist makes quilts that could be entered in art shows among other artistic pursuits. Our Blood Bank specialist went into science because her mom said she wouldn’t pay for an English degree so she could be a starving painter/writer. So she does both in her spare time. I have noticed a trend toward more realistic styles or practical applications. But I have no idea how universal that is.”

I suspect one of the things that makes a good research scientist is the same creative streak, the ability to think outside the box, that makes a good artist.”
” I’m not a scientist but I am software engineer and creating good software requires a lot of creative “outside the box” thinking.

You never see a lit professor factoring polynomials for fun, but you see math professors reading shakespeare. I finish my masters of science in neuroimaging and informatics in may while employed as a software engineer and plan on doing my phd in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in neuroengineering where I want to work on neural prosthetics. Time permitting I am involved in theater as a stage hand, do sound for a bunch of different bands, paint models, play 5 string bass and make noise on electric guitar. When I went back to school to get my undergrad bioscience degree was when I took up bass then electric guitar On top of my science classes and work. I graduated summa cum laude and had been the school jazz bands bass player for several semesters. Anyone can be artist (how good you are varies) not everyone canbe a scientist, but one doesn’t prevent the other”

The answer is yes of course. But you have no idea how many times I’ve heard some version of this when people I worked with found out I was an author. Every parent seems to think their child is the next Einstein.
If they still have all those interests when they’re sixteen or so, then you may have something. ”
Yes. It is very possible. Your daughter’s interests may veer in one way or another — mine went heavily toward music — but there’s a crossover between music and math/science. My school system didn’t have a way to be in both science and music at the same time, so I read science stuff on the side. I am an educated layman in that area rather than someone with a BS or greater (though I have my degrees in — what else? — music), and that has served me in good stead.

Yes. In fact some art is nearly necessary to engineering and science. Understanding perspective, and being able to envision the three dimensional whole from a two dimensional drawing or picture is needed for a _career_ that involves analysis, graphs, and writing reports. In high energy physics, interpreting test results can also involve that ability to see what a screen or paper is attempting to show. Art and drafting are probably the two best ways to develop that ability.”

Well, there’s Dr. Brian May, who was the Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008 to 2013 and a “science team collaborator” with NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission.
He’s also know for some doing some guitarist work, song writing, and even singing for some band known as ‘Queen’. ”

Of course the best thing to do is discover for yourself.

Go see the cool stuff at Lawarence Berkley in November.


To finish up is this:


  1. thewriterinblack · April 3, 2016

    Okay to be both a scientist and an artist?

    One would think so.


  2. MadRocketSci · April 3, 2016

    When I was in early elementary school and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied “Renaissance Man.” The teacher asked me if I even knew what that meant. “Sure, I do. A Renaissance man is someone who is a master of every art, who becomes good at anything that he wants to do.” Leonardo da Vinci was sort of my childhood hero. (Didn’t know enough about the world then to know about Feynman, or Gauss, or any of the rest of those guys.)

    Eyerolls from the teacher. (Of course, this was the same crowd that thought I might be functional enough to be a ‘sanitation engineer’, I could forget my dreams of being a real engineer. Great guidance counselling we got!)

    To be honest, I’m not enough of an artist (yet). I always keep spreading myself too thin to really get good at something. (Drawing, programming, electrical engineering, modeling, flying, etc etc) My brother is a much better artist than I am.


  3. MadRocketSci · April 3, 2016

    When my brother was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied “World dictator!” 😀


  4. penneyvanderbilt · April 3, 2016

    Reblogged this on Ancien Hippie.


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