Do Artists and Scientists have anything in common? What are the perceived differences between these two “species”? Our second day at the Cambridge Sustainability Residency was about challenging preconceptions about what artists do and what scientist do, and how different are their worlds. Marina, our CSR director, organised an exciting visit to The Sainsbury Labs, in the heart of the Botanic Garden in Cambridge.
(My admiration for Marina grows every day, she is just an amazing committed artist, doing all of this for us to have an stimulant and structured environment!)
This amazing place is dedicated to research about the marvels of the Plant Kingdom, its interactions with other living beings and their key role in the future of humanity. The building itself deserves an special mention: just the entrance of ancient ginkgo trees suggests a culture of contemplation and wonder. Indeed, the architects were inspired by the monastic buildings where monks and nuns patiently recorded, debated and create new knowledge. The offices and labs surround an spacious “patio” where modern fountain waters sing along silvery olive trees, while groups of students, researchers or artists (like us) get together under their cool shade. Dry gardens adorn the balconies, acknowledging the arid climate in the east of England. We were kindly received by two young scientists -Dr. Sandra Cortijo and Dr. Anna Brestovitsky– who have prepared a number of activities and presentations about the fascinating and very creative world of scientists.
The opening question was what are the differences between artists and scientists.
Is it about the limited methods available to scientists, who need to be specific, measurable and quantifiable? or is it about the necessary detachment between the “object” of research, contrasting with the almost unbounded empathy of the artists and her surroundings? Or perhaps is the fact that scientists receive better funding than artists? While some of these preconceptions are very common, the truth is that the scientist’s work may not be that different of an artist. Both are inspired by questions and follow certain paths to go through them… in this path, new questions arise, new journeys and accidental discoveries. Also, scientists and artists have a major goal in mind: somehow to help humanity to be better, to feel better, to understand and to feel the world in a different fashion.
What was really interesting was the way in which Sandra and Anna had prepared the session. They took us through the most elemental steps of scientific enquiry: observation, question, hypothesis, experimentation and conclusions. In doing this they invited us to find out “whether or not plants can sense temperature”. We were given these “petri dishes” of arabidobsis thaliana– a common “weed” very useful for testing ideas. So with a magnifying glass and our own ways of observing, we were to find out what were the main differences between the weeds growing in 22 degrees (celsius) and 27 degrees.
While everybody was embedded in the scientific task – I thought that a first common bridge is “ways of seeing”. Artists and Scientists develop a particular way of seeing the world. For a drawer, like me, it is important to “see” what is directly in front of my eyes, and not to “think” on the object, hence, tarnishing my “vision” with “ideas”. Similarly, I thought scientists need to “see” and “look” very carefully, identifying slight changes or variations between one or other conditions (or variables).
Unfortunately, I could not stay much longer to enjoy this discussion, but all of this made me wonder until what extent we need to overcome our initial prejudices in order to work together with science in the purpose of curbing climate change or promoting sustainable practices?
The question leads to start thinking ways of engaging with different stakeholders and groups… and perhaps, it is also related to something that was discussed yesterday regarding whether the artist is a “tool” or maybe she can help to enhance ways of understanding the world? If it is true that scientists and artists have so much in common, it is also true that both we can learn from each other. The rigor of following certain pointers in the scientific method enhanced by the possibility of keeping an holistic view and be prepared to dream and to play as part of the journey of discoveries.