‘It’s very important that scientists work with artists in my opinion, because science produces facts that go to the head. Art produces beautiful things that mainly go to the heart. And if you want to influence people, you can influence the head but if you want them to act you really have to go through the heart. What people care about is what they look after, so [scientists] teaming up with artists helps [them] get the science across to a much wider audience.’
This is something that a scientist I was interviewing earlier this summer said to me. Recently, I have been thinking about quite a lot about it – and whether I agree with it or not. Is scientific content reaching a wider audience through science-art? And is there really a clear divide between science influencing the head and art the heart?
Often successful science communication requires information to be extracted from a dry scientific paper and communicated through art, television, public lectures, computer games… and a whole host of different media. The end product of science is given its emotion back and people can begin to care about it. The emotion is there is science, just often it is hidden behind the end result, the emotionless ‘facts’ in a faceless paper.
I therefore fully agree that often to engage people with a subject, regardless of whether it is science or not, they have to care about it to a certain degree (i.e. they have to emotionally buy in to it). Science television shows will demonstrate how scientific content is relevant to ‘you at home’ by sending a presenter on a journey where they experience situations that the average person watching can relate to. Environmental communications that require people to take action or make a lifestyle change will use emotional images to ‘sell’ their message and get people to act. So (although I am conscious of making sweeping generalizations) in order to fully engage someone with a subject, you have to engage their emotions or, as the researcher said, their hearts.
But does art really engage people’s hearts and emotions? And to what degree does science inspired art engage people enough for them to care about the science behind it? This is something I put to Wynn Abbott, Director of the London Science Festival. “I think it’s tricky because I’m not aware of many examples whereby the emotional responses to art have been scientifically monitored,’ he explained. ‘ I’m sure there are more out there but the only recent example I can think of was a recent collaboration between the winner of BBC Radio 4’s ‘So You Want To Be A Scientists’ and Martin Kemp (Prof of History of Art, Oxford). As this experiment implies, I think it’s without doubt that art definitely affects emotions – the physiological measurements are possible here.
The more difficult question that you’d have to answer with science-art is what is creating the emotional response in the work — when art works aesthetically and conceptually. I presume what the scientist is getting [at in their quote above], is that to truly engage the public in the science of science-art is to creative an emotional response to the conceptual nature of work (the ideas) i.e. the work is not just a pretty picture. And, I’d totally agree with that.”
Patrick Stevenson-Keating is a designer with a strong interest in science. Recently, he teamed up with Super/Collider to create the world’s first handcrafted glass particle accelerator. He didn’t disagree that art does induce emotions but had hesitations about how well art can communicate information. ‘ [Art] undoubtedly does often draw an emotional response, but just as frequently has the potential to alienate the viewer’, he said. ‘Sometimes it feels as though art can be more for the expression of the artist rather than communicating discreetly to the audience.’
Patrick’s thoughts on whether there is a divide between art and science, and whether science just affects the head and art the heart, echo my own views. ‘For me, the parallels between [art and science] are striking. Speaking from personal experience as a designer with an interest in science, in my opinion both subjects have a fundamental basis of questioning their environment. Both have the ability to turn the seemingly mundane into the fantastical. These are the reasons why I personally love both areas,’ he explained.
‘Science has been influenced by emotion and belief throughout its history, I just don’t think you can separate the human element of it from the rational logical side completely. And as a result, I think science definitely does have the ability to engage people on an emotional level very strongly,’ he continued. ‘I think the reason why art and design are such good mediums for science communication is not because they target the heart rather than the head, but because of the similarities between them. Artists/designers have the skill set to visualise or convey the wonder of science in a way which many scientists often don’t. Although processes may initially seem very different for artists and scientists, a lot of the work follows a similar route; the outcomes just manifest themselves in different forms. Science definitely has the ability to engage people’s emotions, but sometimes just needs a medium which can be digested a bit more readily by the public, this is where art and design can come in.
Both Wynn and Patrick’s thoughts highlight the importance of emotion in communicating and engaging people with scientific content, and also that art does induce emotions in people. However, I do still question the extent to which science-art can engage people with the science behind it. And, more importantly, whether such a strong divide can be made between different disciplines and how they affect people’s emotional response to them.
I’m sure that there are many nuances of this broad topic that I have overlooked, and many more questions which I haven’t address – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and hear about any examples you may like to share so please comment below…