A call by philosopher George Steiner for the Edinburgh International Festival to recognise the "intellectual challenge" of science promotes an unnecessarily pessimistic view of the gap between arts and science, according to academics.
Professor Steiner, a fellow of Churchill College Cambridge who gave Edinburgh University's inaugural lecture at the 50th festival, claimed that the arts were looking backwards, while science moved forwards. Painters and sculptors had been feted in Renaissance Florence, but he suggested that most gifted people in the late 20th century worked in the sciences.
"Doing first-class science and technology is, visibly, enormous fun," he said. "It engages criteria of elegance, of beauty, of harmony in mathematics as old as Pythagoras or Plato, but now hidden from all who cannot master the language, dare one say, the poetry of algebra."
He urged festivals such as Edinburgh's to consider how to extend the presentation techniques of the arts to pure and applied sciences.
But Jan McDonald, professor of drama at Glasgow University, said Professor Steiner's presentation of the arts and science as discrete entities was very retrogressive.
"They are trying to do the same thing, explore and understand the natural world, even if they use different vocabularies," she said. "Art has always drawn on science for its subject matter."
Duncan MacMillan, director of Edinburgh University's Talbot Rice Gallery, said: "Creative artists and creative scientists are both working on the edge. The role of the imagination in science is crucial." He stressed that the city now had an annual science festival, which had included an exhibition at the university by leading Scottish sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, exploring the relationship between art and science.
The university has commissioned Sir Eduardo to sculpt two massive bronze figures to flank the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology's new building, representing the "aspirations and achievements" of the institute's research. Edinburgh has won a Pounds 26,000 National Lottery grant towards the Pounds 75,000 project.
"Molecular biology is literally taking life to pieces, and Sir Eduardo is putting it together again in these figures," said Professor MacMillan. Edinburgh's principal, Sir Stewart Sutherland, said the sculptures symbolised the university's aim of promoting an interdisciplinary understanding of life in its broadest sense.