Some thoughts (and a sketch) about the differences and similarities between science and art

It goes without saying that science and art are in many ways two of the most important pillars of humanity. Many people have thought and written about the similarities and differences between science and art, and about their connection. Even though I may not know too much about formal discussions on this topic, during my scientific career I have talked to several people about it and have some personal insights about the topic, which I will write down here. Of course this is just a personal view, and hence a little corner of this big, interesting discussion topic.

Also, I am not interested in discussing the goals of each discipline. Science is about understanding, and art can be about that, too, but can also be about other things. Art can just be some form of expression, but one could view that as understanding, too, and perhaps an understanding of something inside us. Anyway, I don’t think the two disciplines can be cleanly separated from looking at their goals, so I am not interested on those but more on the processes happening in each case.

Since I started studying physics, and later doing research on it, I soon got the impression that many colleagues saw science in a way that is closely connected to art. Especially, I would say some people pictured their scientific idols as a kind of artists, and hence they would aspire to that, too. To me, this had always striked me as something strange. I did love science and I loved other fact-based disciplines such as journalism, and I recognized the importance of rules and rigor in those as something fundamental — you can’t lie as a scientist or journalist, because that would be morally wrong and would invalidate all that work completely. However, I also loved art and literature just as much, but there I felt we are not subject to those rules. Actually, I would say there are no rules in art, and that is the beauty of it: that it’s free, unadultered pure imagination. In my mind, I used to think that science and art are in a way the opposite concept. To put it in a few words, I would believe that science is the truth, the facts, while art, on the other hand, art is the falsehood, the invention, or, more subtly, the other side of the truth.

Years have passed since my early impressions as a scientist listening to older colleagues and I keep coming back to the the same question. I do science for a living but I also write short fiction stories sometimes. So I participate in the different processes of science and art in some ways and more or less regularly. So they must be connected in some ways, I think. So what is it that connects the two? What do I find myself doing when working on one or the other? And I think the answer is thinking, being creative. The beginning of the processes involved is pretty much always coming from the same common place: ideas. And ideas are those wonderful, magic things. We do not know where they come from or how to trigger them; they just happen, and they come and go, and sometimes we even have a hard time catching them or writing them down before they run away from us. And to me, for both scientific or artistic purposes, ideas are something I have to work for, in a way. I have to spend time thinking about those topics so that the ideas would come and go. And that doesn’t mean sitting on a chair with my eyes closed, it typically happens as I do other things, especially things involving routine, such as showering, walking, doing the dishes… those sort of things. Just going on with my day but having those background thoughts is what triggers most of my ideas, no matter if they are about some scientific puzzle or some fiction story I have in mind. And, importantly, I don’t feel like I create or build those ideas, I feel like I just try to catch them as they come, and sometimes I will fail to capture an idea and have no way of bringing it back or reconstructing it, and I have a feeling of loss. I feel like one doesn’t know when they’ll come, but has to be ready for them.

So the beginning of scientific and artistic processes may be a common place, just pure ideas, ways of creating or thinking of an answer to a question. However, how we carry those ideas forward, and what will be the end point for them, their fate and success, is actually very different. Scientific ideas will face scrutiny by nothing less than reality itself. Scrutiny by the Universe, which has some laws and rules that were there before we even arrived, and which certainly don’t care about how beautiful our idea is. We could collect all the scientific ideas that were discarded by reality and data and that could make some nice literature, but science has no special place for them, and that is the difference. Artistic ideas are only limited by the bounds of imagination, and, I believe, they are all equally valid. Of course, not all of them will be equally appreciated by different people, but that will depend on opinions and context and even time and so many other things that don’t actually need to be based in facts.

The sketch shown in this page is a modification of one from Mr. Lovenstein, which showed only the left column in my figure. So I added the right column and made the connection between sciene and art, in my view.