Where Science and The Humanities Meet

If you can stand at the intersection of humanities and science that’s where creativity occurs. This was a central theme to Walter Isaacson’s discussion on Science Friday with Ira Plato about why the cross-disciplinary approach to create and innovate occurs between the science and humanities. Over the last several years this has become a repeating theme in the media about how both subject areas benefits one another through creating new ideas and challenging established mindsets. Like Isaacson, I often find myself searching and reading about how these two areas can connect and provide us better benefits in our day. One area in particular, design, is a great starting point for the overlap of science and the humanities and how it leads to breakthroughs.

Design has been around for thousands of years in human history and has had a symbiotic relationship with art. Along the way we adopted more intricate shapes and patterns in art that have a mathematical foundation to it, which has allowed us to build amazing structures from the Egyptian Pyramids to the Burj Khalifa. This does sound like a stretch, but it is one that we can follow and learn from. This concept to combine the science and humanities into a singular field isn’t relatively new and it can be traced back to the 1800s.

In the mid-1800s, photographer Charles Negre was an early adopter of art and science in his work. He is an artist by trade after studying painting in Paris and was astonished after learning about daguerrotype photographs in1839. Daguerrotypes where invented in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre as the first photographic process and presented it to the public in Paris that same year. Negre became fascinated by this and he spent a considerable amount of his time learning about the chemistry, physics and optics behind this process. By doing so he realized the connection between science and humanities by stating that…

“Where science ends, art begins,” Nègre wrote. “When the chemist has prepared the sheet, the artist directs the lens and the three torches of observation, feeling and reasoning guide the study of nature; photography invokes effects that make us dream, simple patterns excite us, powerful and bold silhouettes that surprise and frighten us…. We are now convinced that it is less difficult to reproduce than it is to learn to see nature…. Before, the challenge was to replicate nature; today it is to choose from within nature.”

Throughout his own lifetime he was able to combine his own creative process with science to make incredible artwork. It is through this process that combining art and science is not only practical, but a perfect match and one that is essential.

Going further back in history we can see this same combination in the famous 17th Century Dutch artist Johanna Vermeer who created stunning works of art with the help of optics. Vermeer’s work showed an amazing representation of the natural world around him and resembled properties of light and color in photographs. Near the second half of his life he was intensely preoccupied with the behavior of light and other optical effects such as sudden recessions and changes of focus. Optics has been around for centuries and in the 13th Century it was used as spectacles and soon adopted into making telescopes in the 16th Century.

The intersection of sciences and the humanities has been around for a very long time. Today’s climate about education, work and investments in tech startups reflect the importance to constantly innovate. In order to create better ideas and inventions it’s also important to remember that art and science are more closely connected than we realize.