Science is Art Too

It occurred to me on the bus ride home that perhaps what makes art art is that it is a human created work that engenders emotion in the consumer through the senses.  That and nothing else.

This has been bugging me since a conversation I had the other day in which I was asked “what is art?” and I didn’t have a precise answer at the time to that question.  A tangential question that was asked in the same conversation was about whether or not someone who designs a building that is perfect in function and incredibly well built but is not necessarily “beautiful” or “artistic” in the way that, say, the Guggenheim (in Bilbao) is or something by Bjarke Ingels might be (if you’re into that sort of thing).  My personal feeling is that such a building should be called artisanal rather than artistic in nature, although such a title in no way diminishes or enhances my opinion of a work.

Artisanal for me captures the utilitarian and quotidian elements of something whereas artistic captures the aesthetic and the metaphysical.  The quality found in either characteristic, or both, is what determines the value of the work.  A tool, let’s say a hatchet, is something that I think most people would squarely categorize as artisanal.  A painting is something that is artistic.  The construction, and efficacy of a tool is the “artisanal,” and its form and beauty is the “artistic.”  The idea and subject and feel of the painting is the “artistic,” but the execution is the “artisanal.” Great works, be they artisanal or artistic in their core nature push the limits of not just one, but both.  Anything less over time is, and deserves to be, forgotten and even those that have both will not necessarily be remembered; a great stroke of luck is also needed.

One of the things that has gotten me thinking down this line is my hatred (read it: hatred) of so much of my current academic field.  Not the people and not the subject, but rather the execution.  I’ve noticed recently that when people ask me why I’m interested in science and what I think about science, I often describe my feelings using terms much more often ascribed to art; things like “beauty,” “elegance,” “poetic,” “descriptive,” or “challenging.”  

I’ve been reading a boatload of papers recently as part of a literature review for both of my jobs, one to familiarize myself with the field, the other to refresh my background.  Some of them make me want to throw myself off of a bridge.  Ok, not myself, but maybe the author of the paper… or maybe just never let them publish again.  While I was waiting for a technology issue to be resolved at my workstation today, I happened across a link to a paper Stephen Hawking wrote (found at: and given that it was about reformulating our understanding of black holes, my interest was piqued.  It was short: three pages.  Five including the title/abstract page and references.  It was double-spaced.  He formulated his argument deliberately, explained what needed to be said, and concluded concisely.  

Now on the other hand take “Clear cell renal cell carcinoma: discrimination from other renal cell carcinoma subtypes and oncocytoma at multiphasic multidetector CT.”  Its ten pages long, three columns per page of densely typeset words, densely written, and repetitive and also has twenty separate references (surprisingly few for this field), and is ultimately built off of questionable methodology. Ok, not entirely questionable. Just more observational than quantitative, although they attempt to present it as quantitative.

I’ll make my point through analogy: Hawking’s paper is the song “Sunset Soon Forgotten” by Iron & Wine whereas the renal cell carcinoma paper is “Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead.  One is short and deliberate leaving the listener with something to think about and giving them some space in which to think about it.  The other goes on and on punishing you with it’s slightly off-tempo groove and methods until you look at your watch and just want it to be over.  They say everything that they can possibly say about something, and then say it again in slightly different words, and then say it again an octave lower, and then the bass says it, and then improvisational jazz says it, and then the drums have a go, and then back to the guitar, and then we’re going to run some scales, and then jam on that one note because we’re really feeling it, and then… you get the idea.  They go for so long that you’ve forgotten where you started and unclear about where you ended up.*  If you need to experience this for yourself then Iron & Wine ( and Grateful Dead (

Where this all connects, is that the things we started with, the concept of the artisanal and the concept of the artistic, apply across all fields, not just including science but especially in science.  It’s abhorrent to me how many people seem to have forgotten this or never even realized it.  It’s not taught and I can remember a few cases of it actually being trained out of us.  

Science seeks to impart objective universal truths and its power lies therein, but those truths are beautiful.  They can be both artistic and artisanal, and the best work is.  We need to remember that our work tells a story, our story, the scientist’s story and humanity’s.  Don’t obscure good work with bad story-telling (and by story-telling of course I mean journal article writing).  The best science evokes a nearly visceral reaction inside of me much the way that looking at a truly stunning work of art does; they both stem from core search for understanding of our condition; art and artisan come from the same root word.  Science is seen as the quotidian, and art is seen as the metaphysical.  But artisan is derived from a word meaning “to instruct in the arts;” put another way: the artisan informs the artistic.  When the artistic surpasses the artisan the roles reverse.  Much in this way, science can inform art, become it, and then learn from it.  

Let us not forget that.




* I’m actually not trying to rail on the Grateful Dead here.  They’re great musicians.  I do feel this way about the super long jams though, and they’re a good contrasting band against Iron & Wine for the purposes of this point.  And also it’s way more fun to listen to the Grateful Dead high than it is to try and read about renal cell carcinoma in multiphasic CT.