The Intersection of Art & Science: Past, Present, Future

Written by Hayley McKay
Illustrated by Rebecca Michaels-Walker
“Art is very important for communicating, because it evokes empathy and feelings of relatability in its audience,” says illustrator and the president of U of T’s Science Communication Club (SCC), Amy Zhang. “Art elicits this sense of awe that science is amazing, and science can be explored and understood by everyone.”

So, on #NationalSTEAMDay, let’s talk about art and its critical yet often underappreciated role in science and science communication. “STEAM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, but the “Art” part often gets left out in favour of the more ubiquitous acronym, “STEM.” In recent years, art in its many forms has become more common in the science fields, but there’s still an unfortunate divide between arts and sciences.

In an effort to lessen this divide, Tammy Lee founded U of T’s Science Communication Club in 2018 after noticing the lack of good science communication between U of T’s science departments and the greater community. Tammy set out to fill this void, not only by writing accessible, easy-to-understand articles for non-experts, but by integrating art into the dissemination of science as well. She brought student writers and artists together to create posts about new, interesting and important scientific advances coming out of U of T, where every single article is accompanied by a custom-made illustration.

“There’s a notion that if you pursue science you cannot pursue art, or they don’t go together,” laments Amy, a recent graduate of U of T’s pharmacology and physiology programs who is now pursuing an M.Sc. in biomedical communications. Although universities often group science and arts programs into the same Arts & Sciences faculty, students in these programs generally see little overlap between the sections. As both a scientist and an artist, Amy took it upon herself to learn how to use her artistic skills to effectively communicate science.

Most scientists do not receive formal training on how to communicate their research outside of their fields of study. At most universities, laboratory, critical thinking and analytical skills are emphasized in the science disciplines over soft skills like communication. Art, design and creativity are even lower on the scale of importance and are often passed off as irrelevant for scientists. Obviously, scientists need extensive knowledge of their field of study, but some exposure to art and design will ultimately do them a lot of good.

Amy certainly speaks for everyone in the SCC when she says, “Universities should give a little bit of training in terms of general design concepts, especially for scientists who want to bring their research out into the world and explain why it’s important.” She’d like to see universities offer more courses and seminars geared towards science students and researchers which focus on art and design.

While dense and complex written papers are always going to be part of the way scientists communicate their research to their peers, principles of art and design can also be used by scientists to tell a story about their research. Instead of text-heavy posters and presentations, creating graphics and other artistic elements can help engage an audience, especially if they’re not experts in the scientist’s particular field. Scientists should be interested in communicating not only to their direct peers, but to the greater scientific and non-expert community. In doing so, the important work they do can be brought to light and applied to solving real-world issues.

So how did these principles of art and design come to be identified? The answer lies in psychology research. And it is only one of many examples of science and art intersecting.

Have you ever had a moment of inspiration and enlightenment when standing at the base of a particularly beautiful building? Architecture is a great example of the intersection of art and science. In order to construct a building, you need math, physics and engineering, but you also need art to design something that’s aesthetically appealing.

For hundreds of years, art and math have walked hand in hand to create intricate tile facades on buildings all over the world. Although only formally documented by a western mathematician in 1974, the use of non-periodic tiling can be seen on Islamic buildings from as early as the 10th century, like the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul or the Alhambra Palace in Granada. The tiling consists of pentagonal tiles, which are not conducive to repetitive patterns. But with the help of geometry, artisans created complex arrangements of these tiles which result in five-fold symmetry and stunning facades, inspiring awe in anyone who observes them.

And then there is Robarts Library, a monumental ode to brutalist architecture if there ever was one. Although renowned, many who frequent its stacks are less than excited about Robarts’ physical appearance. Completed in 1973, the construction of one of the world’s largest academic buildings involved extensive engineering and mathematical work, but a lot of thought and creativity was put into the design as well. With its football-field sized footprint and the lack of a single right angle, you might have noticed Robarts’ intriguing resemblance to a peacock… or maybe it’s a turkey?

Outside of architecture, birds can be found at other intersections of science and art too. Before portable photography, naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace documented their findings with scientific illustrations. Although Wallace independently arrived at the same conclusion as Darwin, he is rarely credited with the ground-breaking theory of evolution through natural selection. He is however known in the artistic realm as a talented illustrator for his visual cataloguing of the many birds, butterflies and other insect species he encountered during his travels around the world. Like Darwin, Wallace amassed a large collection of specimens, notably his birds of paradise from the Malay Archipelago, which are now worth millions of dollars. In a bizarre turn of events, some of these birds were stolen from the Natural History Museum’s off-campus storage site by a 20-year old flautist who sold their feathers to be used for salmon fly fishing baits!

Another renowned scientific illustrator is Marie Neurath, whose work transformed the field of graphic design. She began her work as a ‘translator’ in Vienna in the 1920s where she took complex scientific information and translated it into concise explanations using both text and visual elements. This method of science communication became known as ‘isotype’ – the internal system of typographic picture education. Neurath mainly focused on communicating all sorts of science to children; she produced over 80 children’s books over the course of her career.

And perhaps the most well-known scientific illustrator of all hides in plain sight. You may know him as the artist behind High Renaissance works such as the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper, but Leonardo da Vinci was also a prolific scientific illustrator. In his quest to depict the perfect human body, da Vinci spent a lot of his time studying human anatomy, beginning with the muscles and skeleton. His anatomical studies became kinesiological studies, and then finally research on internal organs. He dissected dozens of cadavers with doctors throughout Italy, and with his training as a master painter, documented his findings with meticulous precision. His vast collection of human anatomical studies are credited to have paved the way for modern scientific illustration and were some of the most significant scientific achievements made during the Renaissance.

Science and art don’t only intersect in history books. There are countless fun, engaging and creative grassroots initiatives underway to integrate art and science. Take Science’s “Dance your PhD” contest: it tasks competitors to communicate their doctoral research through dance and movement. The scientists have to come up with creative ways to film and edit their choreography, integrating dance, cinematography, and digital media with complex scientific concepts.

Social media is another place where art and science collide. Indigenous artist and science communicator Amber Sandy uses social media to educate people about Indigenous art and science, and the roles both play in conservation and environmental science. She’s created easy-to-follow tutorials using traditional leather-making methods to tan fish skin with tea, highlighting the underlying scientific concepts along the way. Medical writer Nina Chhita posts her illustrations of trailblazing women scientists on Instagram and Twitter. With her art, Chhita aims to raise the profiles of these women who made important contributions to science but are not as well-known as their male counterparts.

This eclectic mix of art-meets-science is by no means an exhaustive list, but there are still not as many intersections out there as there should be. It’s time we end this division between art and science because we really cannot differentiate between them. Science is art, and art is science. We need both working in tandem to advance scientifically and culturally. But most importantly, we need art to communicate science effectively.