Awkward Beauty: Musing on the relationship between science and art.

by David Ng


Often I get asked to attend artistic events because apparently word has gotten out that my lab does a fair amount of work within the creative arts. Whilst this is true (my lab does have a number of projects that interact with the creative writing and visual art community), and I am always honored to be included, the reality is that I often feel very out of place when I go to these things. The cultures embedded within these scenes—a poetry reading, an art exhibition, or a theatrical production—are just so very different from my own scientific setting. It’s as if I know there is beauty in what I am experiencing, but still I can’t help but feel a certain sense of awkwardness. That maybe I shouldn’t be there in the first place, at this strange intersection between the arts and the sciences.

Of course, this interplay is awkward, and I say awkward out of courtesy. Sometimes, it can feel downright foreign. Which is understandable since, as we’ve all been told, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and at last count, there are almost 7 billion beholders out there on this planet, most of them foreigners to us.

We all see things differently. Take viruses as an example: Objects that serve as a baseline for subsistence, almost cheating their way into the world of the living. Most scientists see beauty in these forms, not necessarily because they are aesthetically pretty to look at, but because there is elegance in the way they function with so little, in the way they survive, in the way they be. To people like me, it feels like a small miracle that they can even exist in the first place.

But when I take a look at Luke Jerram’s marvelous virus sculptures, it shows a different perspective. (See Seed’sprofile of Jerram’s work.) Not only it is intriguing to view these structures, but there is a new appreciation for the subject. They appear intricate, venerated, and yes, even pretty. Best of all, these sculptures make viruses feel strangely more real. This, I’ll warrant, is a form of beauty that will register better to certain beholders, more so than genetic sequences and infection processes.

And this is nice. It allows a wider audience to immerse themselves in a topic. It gives others a chance to provide an opinion, contribute a perspective. It provides a place for the artist and the scientist to come together, to dialogue, and by doing so, to break the awkwardness a little. I can speak from my own experience. When I do go to an artistic event, I’ve discovered that it’s always better to wear my scientist label—in fact, it gives me a stronger voice. People are curious about my views, and the conversation in my mind becomes less about me versus them, but more about “what do you see?”

It’s when I go to these events, or when I explore pieces by artists such as Jerram, that I quickly realize that it’s not really about two cultures, those two distance columns of knowledge representing art and science. It’s just about “people liking different things:” Many people are frustrated by this, but many people celebrate it. Perhaps most importantly, everybody knows this to be true already. Consequently, I think there’s a lot of bottled wisdom in that old saying, especially when it comes to bridging disciplines, fostering respect for artistic and scientific literacy. It’s something worth holding onto when you go outside your comfortable setting or when you share your perspective, your opinion, your knowledge to others. It makes you realize that maybe there should be more opportunities for the artist and the scientist to converge. In this light, awkwardness seems rather natural, and maybe is not such a bad first step after all.

Originally published at Seed, October 15, 2009