The Artists and the Scientists



I was surprised to read that Davie Bowie had died.

I’d assumed it had happened years before; drug-filled oblivion, perhaps; AIDS after unprotected sex with hundreds of strangers; an elaborate collision involving some form of luxury transport.  Rock Star, obviously.  Oh, the stereotyping of lives we know nothing about.

I have been pigeon-holing artistic ‘types’ since University.  You know Universities:  forward-thinking places, where enlightened people consider all colours of skin, all genders of human, all gender preferences and all religions to be equal.  But even in Universities, people like to form tribes.  It’s human nature.

So the Scientists and Artists look upon one another across a deep divide.

I was a Scientist.  I worked hard.  I had lectures scheduled 9.00-5.00pm most days, weekly assignments, lab practicals, exams nearly every term and ‘EMS’ (working for free) in the holidays.  My friend studying theology had one or two lectures each week and spent the rest of her time ‘reading’ for a single essay that I used to help her to write the night before its due-date.

‘Reading,’ by the way, is a technical term.  It means ‘drinking tea.’  And who wouldn’t want more time to drink tea?  That, and make ourselves familiar with our own popular culture, including the fact that David Bowie was still alive?  I’m sorry that I didn’t take the chance to appreciate that.

But we scientists consoled ourselves that it was worth it: we were going to get ‘real jobs;’ have great influence, do something ‘useful’ with the rest of our lives.


Systematic study through observation and experiment.  The application of logic to the understanding of our world.

Galileo collected evidence showing that the sun and heavens do not revolve around Earth.  People at the time liked to assume otherwise and what he said was highly contraversial.  He never really won against the closed minds of his day, while we take many of his ideas for granted.

So Darwin and others spotted the changing body-shapes of species over time and came up with the theory of evolution; so Scheele and Priestly demonstrated the existence of a gas that we now call Oxygen.  At this precise moment, thanks to scientists, humans can access more factual information about their environment than ever before.

There are scientists out there with convincing ideas as to how to feed the world with the resources we’ve got.

There are scientists who can predict the effects of releasing Carbon into the atmosphere.

Educational results are hard to quantify, but science has even tried to identify the optimal ways to help children learn.  (I’ll give you a clue:  it’s not by pushing them through accademic tets or judging their worth on their ability to recite times tables).

We’re in an amazingly priviledged position, aren’t we?  Sure, Scientists disagree between themselves but if we sat our best ones down together to debate some of these issues; if there was no pride involved so that the “right” or “best” answers they thought of were heard; if we didn’t bribe these people to put certain slants on it (careful funding of the research), surely we would make our lives much better?

Of course, our country is run by artists and economists; charasmatic speakers with good presentation skills and their own subjective ideas of what they want for the future.  They might find scientific evidence useful when it supports the line that they want people to beleive, but if the evidence doesn’t say what they want they tend to ignore it.




Let’s leave the government alone though; what about closer to home?

A friend’s friend told me that as a scientist, she knew that there was no reasonable basis for the practise of accupuncture.  She was unlucky in that this is a special interest of mine and I could point her to some texts written by eminant, mainstream scientists and doctors giving a logical, physiological explanation of how ‘Western’ accupuncture works by stimulating nerves.  I could also reference clinical trials.  Before she had time to download them from the journals, she had ranted that she would never have accupuncture herself because it didn’t have any basis.

I bet I knew whose side she’d have been on when Galileo and Darwin showed up with their ideas.  People who have studied science can be closed and unscientific, too!

But here speaks a black pot of a kettle.

Recently, research has linked the consumption of processed meat to a significantly increased risk of getting cancer.  I can’t tell you how significant ‘significantly’ is;  or whether or not altering what I feed to my kids is supposed to reduce their chances.  Because – shock horror – I have not read the research.  I haven’t even read the journalism.  I have ‘known’ all my life that getting cancer is largely a matter of bad luck (apart from, say, lung cancer from smoking) so I have planted my head firmly in the sand and am doing whatever it was I would have done anyway.

‘They’re always advising us against doing something,’ I mutter.  If there’s an opportunity to make a difference to my own chances of following in Mr. Bowie’s footsteps, it is highly probable that I am missing it.

The moral of that story?  Science isn’t that influential.  Even smoking didn’t become old-fashioned when the evidence proved that it caused cancer.  It became old-fashioned after generations of media campaigning, gory lung-pictures, warning on fag-packets, policy-making, laws to throw smokers outside in pubs.  The scientists made the link in the first place, but artists made it happen.

Scientist-creative combinations are where it’s at (just look at the world of computer science); if drinking tea is the sort of thing you enjoy, it’s fine to opt to drink tea at university.  You can still make a massive difference to people.

In fact, if you’ve got some talent, go for art, music and design.





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