Science & Art, Flowers & Feynman

By Sam Spillane, Class of 2016

Is it artists, or scientists, who can most appreciate the natural world around them?

Richard Feynman has this beautiful piece from a BBC interview, often referred to as “Ode to a Flower”.  He talks about a disagreement he had with a friend of his, an artist.  The artist told Feynman that he sees the beauty of the flower, and argues that a scientist, such as Feynman, would analyse the flower until it is just a dull thing.

Feynman argues that he can appreciate the same beauty of the flower as his friend can, but his scientific literacy allows him to “see much more about the flower” — the inner structure, the cells, the processes going on within it.  Feynman stresses this point strongly, declaring that “the science only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

But does it?

Funnily enough, the very first science experiment I did in high school was the dissection of a flower.  We’d each took our scalpel as the science teacher guided us through the flower’s reproductive anatomy – the stamen, the pistol…we’d later be tested on this.  I can remember thinking how dull this was – pulling apart flowers was hardly something groundbreaking and, had I really wanted to, it was something that I could do in my own backyard.  I felt like we were analysing the flower until it was a very dull thing, indeed.

Yet now, some ten years later, I find myself having the same appreciation that Feynman described.

So what changed?

Over the last ten years, I have seen a number of fantastic science communicators harness their artistic creativity in order to spread the excitement, mystery, and awe of science.  During high school it was things like XKCDSymphony of Science, and Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.    Even in university I remember being mesmerised by IBM’s “A Boy And His Atom – The World’s Smallest Movie”.

These experiences were much different to anything offered in the classroom. Rather than facts and figures, they were all works of art — with vivid imagery, and sound.  And this artistic input contributed a lot to the scientific concepts that was being communicated.

I think it is this sort of creativity and artistic influence that plays a large part in adding to the excitement and awe that science has to offer.  These influences in my own life really got me thinking about science, and made me want to pursue it.

So…is it artists, or scientists, who can most appreciate the natural world around them?

I guess artists and scientists can sometimes be two sides of the same coin.  And when armed together, science and art can highlight the exciting and awe-inspiring things happening around the world around us more than science or art could do on their own.

Want to hear more? Check out Randall Munroe’s TED Talk.