Art and Math and Science, Oh My!

Growing up, I had two favorite things.

I loved art.

And I loved science.

I was always made to feel that these two interests were unrelated. I had art class at school. I had science class at school. Sometimes I did watercolors on the weekend. Sometimes I taught myself programming on the weekend.

And when it came time to decide what to study and what to do with my life, I felt forced to choose between the two. When I was looking into applying to art schools, the art schools I was interested in had no math classes higher than college algebra. Meanwhile, I was set on learning both life drawing and multivariable calculus.

I ended up going to engineering school at MIT. I continued to draw in my notebooks while listening to lectures, at night, on the weekends. We live in a culture that values specialization, that values honing in on one thing particularly, and I always felt weird about not spending my weekends on programming side projects, like many of my classmates. I felt weird about liking two very different things equally.

It also made me feel sad to imagine a life with a job where I only used one of the two things that was so important to me.

As I was trying to piece together all the parts of who I was, a close friend of mine said, “I think that the unifying thing about all of your interests is that you really like creating and making things, whether that’s a painting or a program.” It was at that moment that I stopped feeling weird about loving both engineering and art, & embraced it, and explored how art and technology were connected. And that’s what I’d like to talk about in this post.

Design makes technology usable.

If a website or app is poorly designed, it will be hard for people to use, and it won’t matter so much how amazing the underlying technology is.

If technology aims to improve the lives of people, the usability of its design is just as important as the technology itself.

Using design and art to teach math and science is one of the topics closest to my heart.

Linda Liukas, programmer and founder of Rails Girls, a weekend workshop for learning how to code, left her job to write a children’s book about programming, Hello Ruby.

Her illustrations are colorful and disarming and convey the message that technology is fun and creative and whimsical. This message would be really different if the book had different art — the art totally sets the tone for the learning.

Programmer and co-founder of Girl Develop It, Sara Jo Chipps, started a company to make programmable lightup bracelets for teens called Jewelbots. With Jewelbots, anyone who has an interest in jewelry and fashion can build on that interest to learn about programming!

I wanted to turn my doodle-filled college notes about algorithms into something that could be useful to other people. I wanted to write zines full of drawings and comics to introduce computer science concepts in a fun, encouraging way. That’s why I started writing Bubblesort Zines.

In addition to using comics to explain technical concepts, Bubblesort Zines relates those technical concepts to history and art (for example, introducing binary numbers by talking about the history of numbers around the world).

Art can inspire technology.

While working at the University of Tokyo’s Human Computer Interaction lab, I saw a coworker cutting open a Rilakkuma bear that he had won in a crane game and panicked a little. But he explained to me I had nothing to worry about: he was cutting open Rilakkuma to put some sensors in the bear. He was turning the bear into a controller for a massage chair. You would massage the bear in the places that you wanted to be massaged by the chair!

Most of my coworkers in this lab told me that they got interested in being an engineer because of their love of Doraemon, a robotic cat from a Japanese children’s comic book/tv show. Doraemon was always pulling fantastical gadgets out of his magic pocket. These were things like cameras that took 3D photos of objects and then 3D printed them.

These engineers had grown up with the life dream was to make all of the fantastical gadgets from their childhood come true.

And when I worked in the humanoid robotics division of Honda Research, most of my coworkers told me that their inspiration for studying robotics was the Japanese cartoon Astroboy, about a little robot boy who fights crime in future Tokyo.

Why is it significant that people in research labs are inspired to build technology from a fantasy/sci-fi/comic book lens?

When I ask high school students what they’d like to learn how to make if they knew how to hardware hack or code, they say things like, “Maybe a social app.” “Maybe some kind of a website.” But you get very different answers if you ask them, “What household objects would you enchant if you were in a Hogwart’s charm class?”

Why? Because suddenly, they’re not thinking about technology in terms of what they’re familiar with or what they’ve heard about. They’re thinking of technology in terms of their most fantastical dreams.

And that’s why stories and movies and comic books are so valuable as inspiration for what technology we build. Technology-inspired technology gives us incremental improvements. Art-inspired technology gives us brand new ideas.

Technology can bring art to life.

One very literal example of art bringing technology to life is the experimental theatrical show Sleep No More: an interactive modern retelling of Macbeth where you walk around 4 floors of the set to watch and interact with the actors.

For future shows, they’re working together with the MIT media lab on making the set itself more interactive with embedded programming: mirrors that write messages to you in blood or typewriters that type out cryptic messages to you if you linger too long in front of them.

Another of my favorite examples of technology bringing art to life is Jenn Schiffer’s javascript implementation of Matisse cutouts. She encourages users to not only admire Matisse’s cutouts, but to experiment with creating their own. If you don’t see yourself as artistic, making any kind of art can be intimidating and so your role in art is often just a viewing role. So this is great for people who don’t think of themselves as artistic.

You can experiment with it at!

Why should we care about the intersection of art and technology?

The technology/art dichotomy discourages people who might otherwise be interested in one or the other, or forces people who are interested in both to pick one or the other.

Even if you pick one or the other, understanding both helps you communicate to the people you work with that do the other.

Also, incorporating one into the learning of the other makes for rich learning environments.

Imagine an art classes where the science of pigments and color perception is covered.

Or the class that my best friend teaches: a chemistry class that discusses the chemistry referenced in Sherlock Holmes.

Or a poetry classes where you write programs that generate poems.

Art and technology together make the world a better place.

Amy is a technologist/artist who cares about STEM and STEAM education and making the world better through human-centric design and technology. This post is based on a talk given at ustwo in London.