The palette and the pipette

September 15, 2000

How has the relationship between art and science evolved?

Physiologist Frances Ashcroft discovers a common purpose with painter Benedict Rubbra

Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature," said English painter John Constable. A scientist may beg to differ with this definition, but to what extent do artists and scientists see the world in the same way - and can they learn from each other?

Exploring the relationship between science and art has become all the vogue. My interest in the subject was stimulated by a collaboration with the painter Benedict Rubbra, who is known for his portraits, but is also an accomplished abstract artist.

To me his paintings resonated with images of science. A painting inspired by watching the branches of a willow sweeping the waters below resembled the three-dimensional structure of a protein. A blackcurrant bush glistening in the early morning sunlight evoked the impression of a nerve impulse stimulating its target cell into action. Even his use of paired paintings depicting the same scene in light and shade reminded me of the resting and stimulated phases of the insulin-secreting cells on which I work.

Out of our mutual desire to learn more about each other's point of view grew a collaboration in which Ben spent time working with my research group and I spent time in his studio.

I found it a salutary experience. I had not appreciated the strong analytical component to Ben's art - the precise calculations that ensured the correct perspective, the acute and accurate observation of detail, the precision with which the colours were chosen and balanced. Nor did I recognise the subtle aesthetic alterations required to ensure that the final picture was exactly "right" until Ben made them.

But most fascinating was Ben's representation of my work. My research team studies the way in which an increase in the blood-sugar level stimulates the beta-cells in the pancreas to secrete the hormone insulin. I have a conceptual model of how this works that I express in a diagrammatic form: so strong is this image, I could not imagine another. Yet Ben's painting is totally different - a synthesis of science, the methods we use in our experiments and a reflection on life and death.

For his part, Ben says he found a new world behind the microscope involving different dimensions of scale. He also learned that "we both approached our work through a strict discipline, tempered by intuition".

In the book Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts, Sian Ede says that "while science and art present different forms of understanding and of interpreting the world, there are opportunities for each to gain insights from the other's approach". Certainly, science has served as a stimulus to art for centuries. New scientific concepts and novel materials and technologies have been plundered by artists seeking inspiration.

Individual scientists might also derive enormous benefit from working with artists. But what of science itself? Can art influence the way that a scientist works or provide new scientific insights?

There has always been a synergy between painting and the science of vision. Our perception of art - and its derangement in patients with eye or brain defects - has illuminated our understanding of how the eye and brain see the world. Art can also serve as a "window on the mind", aiding our understanding of the emotional state of the brain - paintings by schizophrenics, for example, alter before an attack. There are cases in which art has aided the intellectual "leap" needed to solve a problem. Sir Harry Kroto's fascination with the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, for example, is reputed to have helped him solve the structure of the carbon 60 molecule. But I fear these are isolated cases.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. Both art and science may claim to seek to understand the world around us, but their approaches are different. Scientists strive above all for clarity. Their papers aim to communicate their findings so they can be understood and reproduced. Facts and speculation are clearly distinguished. In contrast, the artist strives for subtlety, for metaphor, for multiple alternative meanings.

So what is to be gained from interweaving art and science? I suspect a lot. The current debate exposes both artist and scientist to different ways of thinking, forcing them to formulate their ideas more clearly. And since both science and the modern visual arts share the belief that they are not fully understood by the public, perhaps by working together they might help solve that problem too.

Frances Ashcroft is professor of physiology, Trinity College, Oxford. Her exhibition with Benedict Rubbra, "Points of view", is at the Zoology Museum, Cambridge, until November 4.

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