The general understanding of science in society heavily influences where and how science turns up in art. However, often that understanding is flawed, with many misconceptions. Whether it be the fact that here in Britain we start academic specialisation very early (first GCSEs, then A-levels, before down to usually a single subject at university), or simply the way that art and science are taught as mutually exclusive subjects, most people in the artistic community have little core knowledge of science through no fault of their own (although many do hold pet interests in the topic).
One of the major problems faced with people trying to get their heads around science isn’t even a problem of academic knowledge; it’s one of definition. Too often scientific terms lack clarity; the Big Bang wasn’t actually a big bang, the ‘God Particle’ doesn’t have many religious properties (apart from the fact it holds mass, hah!). If you don’t know the details of the theory (as most don’t), terms such as this can really throw the whole concept into confusion – I’ve had a number of people ask me questions about the Higgs boson, having heard of it as ‘the God Particle’, who are severely disappointed when I inform them that it isn’t actually the be-all and end-all of particles. Yeah, it’s pretty damn important, but it’s more part of a pantheon than the One True God.
Even if you do happen to understand all the terminology, you could still be doomed if you wanted to try to understand the science in more detail. Ever tried reading a scientific paper? I wouldn’t recommend it – they’re usually dry and boring, filled with equations and without any human touch. The reasons behind this writing style are valid – it can reduce bias to remove the human elements – but it creates a form which makes the media very hard to access, and difficult to get used to. The whole thing makes papers read like all experiments were performed by some kind of magic science fairy, who makes things happen with a puff of their wand, instead of actual human involvement having happened.
All this opacity within science added to the general misinformation and ignorance surrounding scientific topics means that effective scientific communication is absolutely crucial. This has been getting better in recent years – we’ve got all of Brian Cox’s programs, and then we’ve got David Attenborough as always – but there’s still a long way to go. For one thing, whilst we love our mainstream science celebrities, they don’t truly show the great variety of people who love science – that science isn’t just for scientists, it’s for artists, and musicians, and dancers, and writers: it’s for everyone. We need to demystify the language of science – to clear up the hazy metaphors, and inject some life into the whole thing. We’re in luck though, because there are people out there who do that, people who show just how varied science can be. When I went to Imperial Festival this weekend – a festival held by Imperial College London (my uni!) to showcase and celebrate so many really cool scientific things –I had the privilege of encountering so many people who went outside the stereotype of scientists being maths geeks who never leave the library. I met a doctor of material sciences who does ballet on the side (and she’s pretty damn good – she’s en pointe) with whom I made cocktails with in the name of science, a science songstress with the voice of an angle (get it???) who did the same course as I’m currently doing at Imperial, and shares my interest in the bizarre sexual habits of animals (definitely look up angler fish – you may be scarred for life, but it’s worth it!) and so many others. When people try to portray science as some dull, textbook filled subject, it might be a good idea to remind them that one of the greatest artists to walk this Earth was also one of the greatest scientists – Da Vinci! Maybe we should try and take a leaf out of his book, and add some science to the art, or perhaps some art to the science.
Being a student of Imperial College, I felt that this week I definitely had to write something up on the Imperial Festival, so I have! I saw so many wonderful and interesting things there, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to mention them all, as that would have become extremely cluttered. The en pointe materials scientist I mentioned is the lovely Dr Suze Kundu, whilst the science songstress is the amazing Helen Arney, who was joined by Simon Watt (Life President of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society) and Gemma Arrowsmith as part of The Science Comedy Collider. The other group of people who really helped with this piece are the wonderful Science Communications MSc students, whose talk ‘Playing with Perception’ informed the topics discussed above.
Although Imperial Festival only happens once a year, there are events going on at Imperial College throughout the year, and at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum right next door. If you want to keep on top of all the events going on, I recommend following them on twitter at the links I’ve just given. I particularly recommend the Lates at both museums, and also the Imperial Fringe events (mini themed versions of the festival) which’ll be starting back up again in September. In the meantime, you can keep on top of imperial events by following Imperial Spark.