This past year and a half have given me a lot of time to reflect upon life choices, career decisions, and future goals. Seeing how the pandemic progressed and what role science played in trying to contain it, I realized how unimportant science seems most of the time. Our health concerns can often be solved through politics – the surge in pandemics can be attributed to the way we have decided to structure our society, as I have previously discussed (Climate change; ecology; globalization). Science cannot prevent these pandemics, politics can. Even non-communicable diseases can be a consequence of poor political management, pointed out by Amit. In an ideal world, many doctors would be out of a job, and my PhD funding would have been a lot harder to come by. What does that say about science? Once the mist that is the race to find the cure for cancer and unlimited fuel clears, what will be left? Begging the question, if not for the betterment of the world, then what is science even?
Science explains what the world is, art shows us what it could be
This brings me to what I believe to be the biggest misconception of what science is: the opposite of art. Science and arts are oftentimes juxtaposed. Presumed opposites. Science is thought of as a tool for advancing our world, art is used to give it meaning. However, it is not as black and white as it is made out to be. Rather, I believe the two are heavily codependent. One feeding the other in a beautiful, complex cycle questioning the boundaries of where one lets go and the other takes over [1, 2].
A quote shared with me by our illustrator, Emilie, goes like this: “Science explains what the world is, art shows us what it could be”. Take Leonardo DaVinci’s designs for example, one of which was his study of birds. Their movements motivated him to design a machine that could aid the military, so that they could eventually could join these creatures in flight. Wishful thinking to some, hypothesis to others, a reality to us. I do not think that we would live in the world we do now if it were not for the arts. So, rather than art merely revealing what the world could be, I believe it directly motivates science to get there.
There is something thrilling about watching scientists manipulate nature like that to make something new. A performance art of sorts.
We do not have to look far to see examples of this: Many current astrophysicists grew up watching Star Trek, leading to the discovery of many exoplanets and the deployment of Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance, and now Ingenuity. Computer scientists being intrigued by the ideas of the singularity giving rise to AI. And perhaps more closely related to my own subject, immortality motivating studies in evolution, sex and cancer. A more nuanced picture can be drawn from the science that led to The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, and in turn to the use of defibrillators [3, 4].
Of course, these are examples of science that do somewhat change the world. How about science that just explains how things work or science that creates something for no other purpose than intrigue itself. Does that make it any less scientific? I certainly do not believe so. It does however make it artistic. Have a ponder about whether it is not artistic to be able to take a bacterial defense mechanism and turn it into a tool to edit genes (CRISPR/Cas9) ; how it is not artistic to use a bacterial enzyme to create thousands of copies of a specific gene (PCR); and how it is not abstract to use that technique in conjunction with calculus to determine initial copy numbers for diagnostic purposes (qPCR) . There is something thrilling about watching scientists manipulate nature like that to make something new. A performance art of sorts. The practice (preparatory research), the performance (experiments), and the grand finale (the results).
In a world where all our problems have been solved, you will still find me in the lab at 1 am
Yet, what is even more exhilarating is when you let the science do the talking, when you manipulate nature and just observe things take their course. When the product is not something physical but an explanation. When your exploration is merely to inform a long-lost story. My personal favorite is “reading” the thousand years long love story of herpesviruses and our cells.
We need to move away from the view that if the science does not contribute anything, it is not science. In a world where science is no longer needed for betterment, science is needed for its beauty. In a world where all our problems have been solved, you will still find me in the lab at 1 am looking at one specific gene in one specific virus, playing one specific part in the bigger adventure. The story I find down the lens of a microscope, or through numbers and equations, is to me on par with any brilliant work of fiction.
I am not saying that all that creates or all that recites is science, I am however saying that all science is art. The creativity and abstract thinking that is required to comprehend science does not fall short of the most divine of arts. Science is just manipulating nature to create something new or using our creations to explore the stories that already are embedded in our exciting world. With that in mind, no science can be deemed purposeless any more than a painting can. Although the beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, the meaning is in the hands of the creator.
- The STEAMy Relationship Between Art and Science. EBSCO post: Nov 20, 2017
- N. Shaw. Where do art and science meet? British Council: 16 Dec 2019
- E. Blakemore. How Twitching Frog Legs Helped Inspire ‘Frankenstein’. Smithsonian Magazine: Dec 4, 2015
- R. Francis. How Frankenstein Saved Millions of Lives. MedPage Today: Aug 29, 2019
- D. Ng. Brief History of CRISPR-Cas9 Genome-Editing Tools. bitesizebio.com: Jun 30, 2020
- A. Dove. PCR: Thirty-five years and counting. Science: May. 10, 2018