Episode 5: Imagination — Where Art Meets Science

How do we encourage young people to see the similarities between two disciplines that inspire imagination?

Artwork by Eden Brackenbury

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For many young people who are making decisions about their future, science and art have always been seen as opposites. It’s a choice between one or the other. Rarely both. But as Albert Einstein once said “The greatest scientists are artists as well." Innovators are able to imagine the unimaginable thanks to the marriage of science and art.

In this episode we examine the role of science and art in imagination and education, and talk to seven remarkable women who are bridging the divide. From a neuroscience professor using stand-up comedy to help people understand the brain, to a Hollywood actress and scientist who combines both disciplines in all of her work.


Quotes From the Episode

“I think what I would tell to a young student is, they may not like it because every young person wants to grow up, but think like a child.” — Luisa Gockel

“When you talk to artists, we’re always surprised at how much background work artists do. They don’t just get out of bed and paint a picture. There’s a process, there’s research, there’s investigation, all the stuff that looks exactly like what scientists do.” — Sophie Scott

“The way the future of work is going means that you’re not going to have a job for life. You may not even have a career for life. A lot of people change direction and maybe that’s what makes life interesting.” — Jen Wong

“Lots of men in tech who were not really interested in gender balance until I think #metoo started happening and they started to think, oh, actually I have a daughter. And I was slightly troubled because obviously they probably had a mother, they may have had a partner, they may have had a sister or friends previously. However, the daughters are the change agents.” — Rachel Coldicutt


Featured Guests

Sophia Thakur, award winning poet and writer
Luisa Gockel, social impact partnerships at Pearson
Sophie Scott, professor of neuroscience, speech & laughter at UCL
Jen Wong, head of programming at Science Gallery and co-founder of Guerilla Science
Kate Mascarenhas, novelist
Rachel Coldicutt, CEO of Doteveryone
Mayim Bialik, Actress and Neuroscientist

This week’s unsung hero is Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls Code, democratising education for women of colour.


Episode Credits

Written and produced by Tracy King
Hosted by Leigh Alexander
Season Producer Renay Richardson
Exec Producer Nathan Martin
Exec Producer Anjali Ramachandran
Sound Design by Jason Oberholtzer and Michael Simonelli
Made by the team at Storythings



Transcript

SOPHIE THAKUR: 
Little girl make 
Little boy bake 
Little one break, and go again 
Little boy think 
Little girl wish 
Little one try, and try again 
Little one play, 
It’s how we create 
The greatest way to stay great 
Is to make and to break and feel inspired to make again.

HOST: That’s Sophia Thakur, a writer, communicator and performer from London who uses her broad range of talents to bring awareness to issues such as mental health and black history.

Her poem is about the mindset of makers. It’s an invocation of creation, a call for young people to use their imaginations, and embrace the opportunities technology affords them to create social change.

Quality education is not just about knowledge, it’s also about teaching children how to think for themselves. Problem solving and creativity are essential if young people are to take the knowledge they learn at school, and apply it to their lives and careers.

LUISA: I think what I would tell to a young student is, they may not like it because every young person wants to grow up, but think like a child.

My name is Luisa Gockel. I manage Pearson’s social impact partnerships.​ ​What we try to do at Pearson is to work with some of the best education organisations in the world like nonprofits like Room to Read, World Reader or large international organisations like UNESCO to really ask those tough questions around how to improve education, how to improve literacy levels around the world. And we know the challenge is very big so we try to work together with them tackle some of this. There’s major issues around education globally.

HOST: Before Joining Pearson, Luisa was employee number two at Apps for Good, an ed-tech charity who produce free courses on app building for teachers to use in the classroom​. As their vision states: “Most children are consumers of technology; we want them to become makers using technology.”

LUISA: If I think about my personal experience, I went to a very traditional school. It was all about memorising stuff, getting grades high enough to be able to get into a public university. I’m originally from Brazil. In Brazil the public [universities] are the best ones and I think I didn’t question anything. I didn’t use imagination or creativity, probably until I was 18, and now I look back and see how damaging the wrong school system and a dull curriculum can be to a child.

HOST: Luisa works in social impact, but she started her career in journalism, which is where she fell in love with storytelling.

LUISA: My original plan actually was to start as a journalist, perhaps write a couple of books and maybe go into screenwriting. And then I started writing about women’s rights, indigenous rights, and realised how powerful good storytelling is.

HOST: Luisa believes her passion for asking questions has been the key to her career success, from journalism to her current work trying to solve education problems worldwide.

LUISA: You need to literally think like a child. You need to stop and notice things. You need to ask questions. You need to keep curious, keep this child-like thinking that that will actually free you up and give you a phenomenal sense of imagination that I believe is one of the most relevant and important skills personally and professionally to thrive in the 21st century.

HOST: In this episode, we examine the role of imagination and the arts in science and education, and talk to those who are bridging the divide.

This is Nevertheless, a podcast about learning in the modern age. Each episode we shine a light on an issue impacting education and speak to the women creating transformative change. Supported by Pearson and hosted by me, Leigh Alexander.

SOPHIE: I used to think of science as being very, very different from arts until I spent any time talking to artists, and the similarities are stunning and you don’t really see them until you allow yourself to not be quite so vain about what you do. So whenever I talked to an artist, and I think this is true for any scientist I’ve known, when you talk to artists, we’re always surprised at how much background work artists do. They don’t just get out of bed and paint a picture. There’s a process, there’s research, there’s investigation, all the stuff that looks exactly like what scientists do, and similarly artists can be very surprised by how creative science can be because you do have to come up with new solutions and suggestions to try a new way of testing something. One of my favourite things is designing a study — which is the creative end of the scientific process.

HOST: Sophie Scott is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL. In 2017 she presented the prestigious Royal Institution BBC Christmas Lectures, a three-day live presentation of science to an audience of children. The Christmas Lectures are a British science institution, televised by the BBC since 1936. The lectures themselves were founded almost two hundred years ago by one of the most influential scientists in history, Michael Faraday, who wanted a way to communicate science to children who couldn’t afford an education.

The key to attracting a general audience to science lectures was to make them entertaining and imaginative. Faraday used colour and humour in his lectures, saying, “a flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end”

SOPHIE: So I suppose what I’m saying is you can see both art and science as being highly related ways of using imagination to try and understand the world, and they’re both just ways of trying to find things out and they have superficial differences, but they’re all being done by humans and I think that kind of imagination and interest and seeking to understand things is at the heart of a lot of what we do.

So we did a summer science exhibition in 2012 just about laughter and we had stand-up comedians performing on this tiny little stage at the Royal Society just to make the audience laugh. They were measuring what happens in people’s bodies when they laugh. And it was a riot and it worked really well. It was very popular. The comedians love doing it, people love working on it, we got good feedback from the kids. So I said we could do more with this.

HOST: Sophie studies laughter.

Born in Blackburn, she was the first in her family to follow an academic career path, completing a PhD in cognitive science and then embarking on a research career at Cambridge. She’s now based at UCL. Her research is about communication and emotion, and she is particularly interested in the neuroscience of laughter. Her TED talk, Why We Laugh, has over three and a half million views. Everyone laughs, but Sophie is the expert in why.

Researching laughter led her down an unusual path for a scientist. She began to do stand up comedy herself, and now incorporates comedy lessons into her science lecturing.

SOPHIE: I just loved it. And it was something I did it the first time and thought I want to get good at that. I want to learn how to do this. So it is a very different thing from being trying to make friends laugh or is it a entirely different strategy, it’s a fascinating one and it’s something I found very interesting is a process to try and learn about. But I think the more important side of it, and this is actually why I make my students do it, is that it’s a fantastic training in being comfortable in your skin, on a stage with using humour. You do feel, ‘I did that, you know what, I can do anything’ and it’s like running a half marathon. You think nothing can touch me, you know, so it’s, it’s definitely… that was a very useful skill. If that hadn’t been in place, I doubt that I would have ever done a TED talk, nothing about my talks would have made them remarkable or interesting to TED.

HOST: Using stand-up comedy to enhance science education is an unusual approach at a time when many have historically seen science and the arts as separate. Science is supposed to be analytical, serious, rational, while the arts are perceived as playful, metaphorical, and abstract.

But both require the same thing. Both take imagination.

Throughout history, even before perhaps the most famous scientist and artist of all, Leonardo Da Vinci, the arts have been inspiring science, and vice versa. So how do we encourage children, educators and even employers to foster the arts in a science context? If both disciplines benefit from imagination, how do we stimulate imagination for its own sake?

One organisation trying to answer these questions is Science Gallery, who have exhibition and experimentation venues across the world. Their newest space is in London, and incorporates art galleries, a theatre, and cafe. It’s where science meets art.

We spoke to Jen Wong, Head of Programming for Science Gallery. A science graduate, Jen completed a Masters degree in the history and philosophy of science before moving into a sci-comms career. She co-founded Guerilla Science, which takes science into arts spaces like music festivals, and now Jen oversees the exhibitions at Science Gallery London.

JEN: So the idea is that the program at Science Gallery London, it’s really to provide 15 to 25 year olds with the opportunity to find out more about themes that affect us all. So we’re looking at addiction and recovery as our first exhibition. Then we’re looking at spare parts, so transplantation regeneration and prosthetics, and then we’re looking at dark matter.

HOST: Science Gallery’s ethos is to include minority or marginalised people their exhibitions. For the addiction and recovery theme, they worked closely with young people from the Oakhill Secure Training Centre, many of whose lives have been affected by drug addiction.

JEN: So we’ve worked with Oakhill secure training centre, performance artists, a visual artist called Dryden Goodwin and a policymaker based at King’s College, London called Kim Wolf to really try and look at people from Oakhill’s experience of drugs and what they mean to them. So it’s not your standard, “this is what a drug is, just say no”, it’s kind of looking at addiction and recovery much more holistically from the perspectives of the arts and sciences to try and unpick what this phenomenon, that affects us all, really means for us today.

So even though these themes are fairly esoteric, the way in which we approach them, by bringing artists and scientists together with young people to interrogate what these things mean for their lives, it’s kind of the ambition of the program. So that will happen through a cycle of three month exhibitions and an associated event program where people will be able to encounter some of the projects that have been incubating for the last two years and in the case of Hooked which is the first season, and to ask questions really, so people coming into the gallery will come face to face with gallery mediators. They might come to face to face with addiction researchers and artists who are on gallery, and they also come across various artworks that explore really kind of pertinent questions for us today. So for example, one section of the exhibition looks at digital addiction or life online and how today in the 21st century we’re kind of literally, this idea of kind of immediate reward is facilitated at the speed of light through internet cables.

HOST: What Jen is describing is the impact of technology on culture. Our social media interactions are influenced by the speed at which our devices can transmit and receive information. Our daily transport, our jobs, even the health of our bodies and the planet are inseparable from advancing technology. This human-wide connection to science and how we live with it is what inspires one artform in particular: science fiction.

In a recent podcast for Wired, the best-selling author Yuval Noah Harahi describes science fiction as “the most important artistic genre. It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.”

We spoke to a science fiction writer who has also bridged the divide between a STEM career and the arts. Author and psychologist Dr Kate Mascarenhas released her bestselling novel The Psychology of Time Travel, in mid-2018. The book is a sci-fi murder mystery in which four women scientists invent time travel. Kate’s academic background in psychology helped to inform her world-building, and gives her a different insight into the role of imagination in both science and literature.

KATE: In some ways it’s a kind of heightened awareness because having sort of come up through, you know, being an aspiring writer and doing it professionally, part of it is learning to not disregard thoughts that you might just think of as dismissible. So the sort of cliche is writers holding events that turn into Q&A and people say, oh, where do you get your ideas from? Well actually, everybody has ideas, but they don’t necessarily pay them more than fleeting attention. So I think part of imaginative work is actually it’s being open to possibilities and also just sort of giving your own incidental thoughts a little bit more respect I guess. And you know, I think once you get into that as a habit it becomes much more second nature.

HOST: Kate sees science fiction as a natural crossover point for science and the arts.

KATE: There’s often a default assumption that you start from character. I think with science fiction you’re starting very often from a ‘what if’ question. I think science fiction is a nice place for science and art to meet in that respect that, you know, you can be explorers of those ‘what if’ questions in a narrative artistic way.

HOST: In creating a world that answers the question ‘what if’ — in this case ‘what if four women scientists invented time travel?’ — Kate also had to address real-world questions about the realities of what it’s like to be a woman in science, something she herself has experienced.

KATE: So the kind of several stages to it really. I started off, I wanted to write a story that was exclusively focused on women because my experience had been readers will, without even really meaning to, quite often prioritise the actions of the male characters or they’ll think that’s what’s driving the story. And it sometimes leads them down some very strange interpretive paths. So I started from the point of view that I wanted to write a story about women. And then, you know, it made sense to make them scientists within this time travel story, but there were various ways in which that made sense within the world of the story and also in terms of how I could justify it as something that I was creating. So that’s my ‘out of world’ explanation for it, is that this is an entirely created world. There is no reason why I can’t make it all female, you know, if we can imagine the time travel exists, then we can imagine an all-female workforce, that shouldn’t be a huge leap. But there were also sort of ‘in-world’ possibilities and I think there’s an inspiration at the start that they’re seen as slightly cranky and they kind of ignored because they’re not really expected to achieve their goals. And that actually gives the women space to make that field their own because it’s not a prestige area of science. And then once they’re sort of within those time loops, you know, not really being able to change what happens, it stays a female-dominated profession even once it acquires prestige. That was sort of an interesting implication for me to explore, so it was, it was nice to sort of be working in a speculative world where that wasn’t going to happen.

There are lots of women who’ve written science fiction and there were lots of fictional women time travelers. But I think our default assumption when we come to something as readers is that the scientists are going to be male and it was nice to be able to sort of push back against that and say, well, why can’t they be women in this case.

HOST: Science fiction has inspired real-world change. Martin Cooper, director of research and innovation at Motorola in the 1970s, directly credits the Star Trek Tricorder as inspiration for the design of the mobile flip phone. Writers HG Wells and Jules Vernes are credited as the inspiration for world-changing inventions including liquid-fuelled rockets, the submarine, and the helicopter. Indeed, Verne is often quoted as saying “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”

Imagination is the key to both fiction and innovation. But the Jules Verne quote also illustrates the problem that Kate Mascarenhas addresses in her novel. Science fiction, like real-world science, has historically been the domain of men.

RACHEL: I’ve been on the train into work and I was reading an article about how Elon Musk was taking neural lace, which was in the Ian M Banks culture novels, and trying to turn it into reality. And I suddenly thought, okay, well what are the equivalents for women? If men have these big heroic things that that inspired to achieve because the stories are there equivalents for women. And it sort of started there. And then we at the beginning of this year, started talking to Nesta about the event today. And we decided to do a book of stories.

HOST: That voice is Rachel Coldicutt. She’s the CEO of doteveryone, a think tank founded by innovator Martha Lane Fox that explores and seeks to influence how technology changes society. We spoke to Rachel at FutureFest, a weekend of talks organised by innovation charity Nesta.

The book of stories she refers to is called Women Invent the Future. It’s an anthology of eight science fiction stories, all written by women. But while the brains behind the book are all women, the target market is not. Rachel explains:

RACHEL: So, one of the things that we noticed in the last year is that there’s a lot of ‘woke dads’. So there’s lots of men in tech who were not really interested in gender balance until I think #metoo started happening and they started to think, oh, actually I have a daughter. And I was like slightly troubled because obviously they probably had a mother, they may have had a partner, they may have had a sister or friends previously. However, the daughters are the change agents and so great for daughters. And what we started to realise is that thinking about the culture that those men are in, there are loads of people who are looking for things to do and they don’t know the things. And so one of the things we were thinking is if we send this book to maybe a hundred male influencers and we ask them to read those stories and think about the things that they can do differently, whether that’s commissioning differently, making different choices about the business or a product they’re making and just to see if these different kinds of influences and stories have a change.

HOST: The book is free to download from the Doteveryone website. Anyone can read it. But what Rachel recognises is that the majority of decision makers in innovation and technology are still men. If women are to shape the future, then the male CEOs, entrepreneurs and decision makers need to start taking inspiration from the stories that women tell.

RACHEL: I think I’ve been in tech for over 20 years and a lot of the time I’ve not really been able to look ahead and know confidently the context I’d be working in a year or five years. Like I think when you’re working in an innovation context there’s an extent to which you are making it up, you know, and actually the inputs that everybody has into that kind of bravery and imagination and lots of those things come out of stories. And so there’s, there’s really clear link between. So if you think the Star Trek, the communicator turned into the Motorola Flip, right? Jules Vernes started to talk about submarines in about an 1880 and the power of his imagining it helped others to make it possible and so there’s a really strong link there that and that not only is there a link in terms of the things that people make there’s another link in terms of culture, say if I think in all the tech companies or that the dev teams that I’ve worked in, the moments that people come together to talk about things are about shared culture.

HOST: Doteveryone’s founder, Martha Lane Fox, co-founded Lastminute.com and is on the board of Twitter. She is a champion of technology. But she is also an arts graduate, having studied ancient and modern history for her degree. Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, had a passion for the art of calligraphy that he credits with inspiring the design of the Mac.

The same story comes up again and again. A marriage of arts and science is good for business. A 2011 study by Michigan State University showed that the more arts and crafts someone studied, the more innovations and inventions they produced in their STEM career.

The study states: “Eighty-one percent of the respondents recommended arts and crafts education as a useful or even essential background for a scientific or engineering innovator”. And the earlier an arts education is given, the better the outcomes. Otherwise, we risk children’s education and career tracks becoming too narrow, forcing a between arts or science.

This is something actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik understands well. Mayim entered the spotlight in the eighties as a child actor, starring alongside Bette Midler in the 1988 movie Beaches, and then playing the character Blossom on the popular sitcom of the same name throughout the nineties. She now plays neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fawcett on the show The Big Bang Theory. But Mayim brings more than acting to the role. In 2007 she earned a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.

Mayim is an ambassador for Pearson’s “Dare To Learn, Dare To Change” campaign, which aims to inspire adults to learn new skills and fulfill long-held ambitions.

MAYIM: You know, I was a child actor and you know, by the time Blossom ended, I was already two years out of high school. So, I had always been interested in science and it wasn’t something that I really had the space or the time or really the confidence to pursue. And when I did make the decision to go to UCLA, it was for the exact reason, you know, that the Dare to Change, Dare to Learn campaign reached out to me and why I’m so happy to be working with Pearson is because the notion for me was, you know, there’s this thing that I’m passionate about that I’ve always wanted to do and I never thought that I could pursue it. And becoming a scientist and living my life as a scientist, no matter what profession I have is incredibly gratifying and it really changed my worldview. It changed how I parent and it’s not just because of what I studied, it’s because I chose to study something that I previously had thought I didn’t have the space for, you know, or the ability to.

HOST: Like the other women we’ve heard from in this episode, Mayim uses the arts to communicate science. And like Michael Faraday who founded the Christmas Lectures in 1825, she believes that teaching is best when it’s entertaining and passionate.

MAYIM: Being a teacher is a kind of performance really no matter what you’re teaching. You know, the notion of needing to present information in a way that’s interesting and engaging, there’s absolutely a theatrical kind of aspect to that and that’s going to vary. You know, we’ve all had teachers that are really good and seem like they’d be really good actors then some who clearly don’t have that skill set. So, you know, for me as a scientist I sort of feel like everything gets combined now and I guess I feel the same way as an actor. There are parts of my creative side that make their way into the science that I do and think about. And then there are ways that my scientific brain really, you know, kind of informs my acting world.

HOST: So if science can inform the arts, and vice versa, then how do we encourage young people to integrate both into their education? To see the similarities between disciplines rather than the differences? We return to Jen Wong at Science Gallery London.

JEN: I think when you’re 15 and you’re at this like stage in your life where like you feel like you have to make all these decisions imminently and that they’re going to shape the rest of your life, that’s a really interesting place to be. I think that the decisions that you might make as a 15 year old are not actually irreversible. So, you know, hopefully you’ll live a long and productive and fruitful life until you’re like 80+, maybe 90 actually at this stage, or maybe even 100, who knows. But that’s a lot of time to travel through and also continue to make decisions about where you see yourself going. And I think a lot of young people think, oh no, but this is like the end, like, if I don’t make the right decision now that means I’m boxing myself into a life that I want for myself later on. And actually that’s not really the case. Is it? Like you’re going to be alive for a really long time. You know, the way the future of work is going means that you’re not going to have a job for life. You may not even have a career for life. A lot of people change direction and maybe that’s what makes life interesting.

SOPHIA THAKUR:
Little girl make
Little boy break
Little one break and go again
Little boy think
Little girl wish
Little one try and try again
Little one play
It’s how we create
The greatest way to stay great
Is to make and to break and to feel inspired to make again

Paint this picture in your brain, in face close your eyes as I say it
The year is 1960 something whatever age you are outside playing
It’s time to tackle the bike
Mama said it’s time to ride, but this time you need to put the training wheels aside
You look around there’s no-one there that you can run to
Just mum just holding the bike saying come through
So you talk to your body, tell it to trust you
This is simply something that you must do
You climb on top move off and fall off
You climb on top move off and fall off
You climb on top move off and fall off
It happens five more times but still you don’t stop you try
Straightening your back this time
You try leaning forward this time
You try doing it with your eyes closed
That was a bad idea
You try riding where the wind goes
The tumble was that much more dear
You try doing it with mum, blame her call dad
Eventually, you find a method that fits
Your preferred way to sit to ensure that you move
And you’ve fallen enough times to know how to smooth out a tumble that you’ve learnt to be inevitable.

Open your eyes
This is us
Or at least how we should be
As fearless as our youth was
We learned the most important things during our childhood and teens
To crawl before we walk and then to walk how to talk how to trust support how to communicate before we learnt effective English
How to, engage in the day from start to finish with no job no pay no meeting all day
Yet, we maintain the mindset that makes and tests and tries again.
How many pillows should I move to the floor
To feel safe when I jump from here
Because last time I hurt myself
And mum made it clear if I do that again I’m in trouble
But I’ll be damned if I’m governed by fear at such a young age when I’ve still got the whole World test out

Ironically, we all still have the World to test out
Technology is pushing out new lifestyles by the minute
Globalisation means that we are able to connect with everyone in this
Which means that we are communicating as we never have before
You great idea in India has recently knocked on my door via a blog post that I can no longer ignore because there is this World to learn and how you navigate this new space
How you encourage innovation from your staff by encouraging vacations and late starts How you combatted your problem of employee inertia by embracing a culture of liquid talent
How you introduced mindfulness on Tuesdays and suddenly got mass productivity on Fridays
The brand voice you developed online
The social issues that are now entwined with your once traditional business model now advocates equality and gender rights

Change with the times
Free you mind
Drop your pride
Once upon a time
You were right
And it’s fine
Embrace the transition
Feel out the line
If you own a business, manage or work within the rhyme
To constantly improve your creation is the very gift of design
So treat making and re-making that Christmas sweater
That you secretly want to wear all of the time

CREDITS: ​Nevertheless is a Storythings production — Series Producer is Renay Richardson. Executive Producer are Nathan Martin and Anjali Ramachandran. This episode was produced and written by Tracy King. Music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer and Michael Simoneli, supported by​ ​Pearson​, and presented by me, Leigh Alexander.

This week’s unsung hero is Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls Code, democratising education for women of colour.


Nevertheless is a a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Soundcloud, TuneIn or RadioPublic.