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Thought this would be appropriate to share with the group.
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Date: Fri, 23 Oct 1998 12:46:33 EDT
Subject: Week 71
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**Thanks to Howard Baxter, one of our e-mail directors
in Pennsylvania, for forwarding this one to us!
Mind Over Matter
Why the Arts Are Important to Science
by K.C. Cole, Science Writer, Los Angeles Times,
August 13, 1998
What's art got to do with it? A lot more than people
generally think. To educators fighting over school budgets,
art and music frequently are viewed as frills that drain
funds from more serious subjects like math and science.
But scientists and mathematicians know different. In fact,
they often rely on aesthetics to guide their research, filter
their perceptions and help them visualize patterns in the
sometimes inpenetrable chaos of data.
That's why recent moves by Los Angeles and Orange
counties to put the arts back into the schools is such good
news for science education. Among the children who will
benefit most are the future scientists and mathematicians--
and the people who come to use their discoveries and
inventions. Artistic training can sometimes play a critical
role in scientific success.
Of course, scientists have long said that the best of their
breed are artistically inclined. Most everyone has seen
photos of Einstein with his violin and physicist Richard
Feynman with his bongos. I've sat next to physicist Frank
Wilczek while he played silent Bach piano concertos on his
knees during professional talks. Nobel Prize-winning
chemist Roald Hoffmann writes highly praised poetry
(only sometimes about molecules).
Put four mathematicians in a room, the old saying goes,
and you're sure to have a string quartet. In fact, artistically
inclined scientists tend to win more awards than their less
diversified colleagues, according to several studies.
Michigan State University physiologist Robert
Root-Bernstein and his psychologist mother, Maurine
Bernstein, found that most Nobel Prize winners and
members of the National Academy of Sciences had arts-
"Their less successful colleagues did not share either their
arts interests or their arts-related thinking skills," the
authors concluded. This finding, replicated in several
similar studies, seems a logical extension of other research
conducted at UC Irvine suggesting that exposure to music
actually enhances intellectual ability. Not only does
listening to Mozart improve test performance (at least
temporarily), preschoolers who play piano do better at
science and math than their counterparts who don't.
Why should this be so? Why should painting or playing
piano or writing poetry have anything to do with math or
science? One obvious reason is that scientists, like artists,
must learn to pay close attention--both to detail and to the
broader context. Scientists, like artists, are people who
notice things. They not only see things that other people
often ignore, they also see the frequently hidden links
among disparate aspects of reality.
Scientists and engineers, like Root-Bernstein, "must learn
to observe as acutely as artists and to visualize things in
their minds as concretely. They must learn to recognize
and invent patterns like composers or poets--and play
their high-tech instruments with the same virtuosity as
Another art-science connection may lie in the relationship
between our hands and our brains. A new book by
California neurologist Frank Wilson, "The Hand: How It
Shapes the Brain, Language, and Culture," argues that
people who use their hands are privy to a way of knowing
about the world inaccessible to those not schooled in
Speaking on National Public Radio's "All Things
Considered" recently, Wilson told of a car mechanic who
got a call from a vice president at a big computer company,
complaining that his MIT-educated engineers couldn't
solve problems as well as the older engineers at the
company. It turned out, Wilson said, that 70% of older
engineers fixed their cars, and 20% had some experience
with wrenches. Of the young hotshots, none had ever
held a wrench. As a result, they weren't as good at
understanding complex systems.
The hand's knowledge about the world, according to
Wilson, actually teaches the brain new tricks. The hands
touching, exploring, and manipulating can rewire the
brain's neural circuitry.
Finally, logic alone is sometimes insufficient to solve really
complex problems. Even Einstein said that imagination
was more important to a scientist than knowledge.
Physicists on the forefront of discovery often talk about
being guided by "smell" or instinct. They talk about the
"aesthetic" appeal of ideas. According to French physicist
Henry Poincare, aesthetics was "a delicate sieve" that
helped scientists sort through the confusion of facts and
theories. The physicist P.A.M. Dirac observed: "It is
more important to have beauty in one's equations than to
have them fit experiments."
Painting, piano playing, and poetry help put things in
context, sharpen details, hone observations. They sort the
essential from the peripheral, forge connections, find
patterns and discover new ways of seeing familiar things.
These are exactly the tools any good scientist needs.
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