Emily LakdawallaNov 20, 2012

Curiosity news that's not news (or maybe it is), and some thoughts on art and science

This morning while driving to work I heard a terrific story about Curiosity on National Public Radio from Joe Palca, NPR's science correspondent. It was a great story despite the fact that it contained virtually no news. The nugget of non-news is that SAM's analysis of Mars soil has yielded some unspecified, exciting, but not-yet-confirmed result. But that's not really what Palca's story is about; it's instead about the conflict between excitement and caution that every scientist feels when they have discovered something new and cool. Go read or listen to the story: "Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now".

At the end of the segment, Palca talked to Richard Zare, one of the scientists involved in the announcement of the discovery of organic compounds in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Zare drew an analogy between science and art that I found amusing. Here's what Palca and Zare said:

Zare says in a way, scientists are like artists. Sharing what they do is a big part of why they get out of bed in the morning.

"How many composers would actually compose music if they were told no one else could listen to their compositions? How many painters would make a painting if they were told no one else could see them?" says Zare. It's the same for scientists.

I often compare science to art. But I mean almost exactly the opposite of what Zare means. I have said that scientists are like artists because they are driven by obsession rather than approval. Scientists don't get into science because they think they'll make a good living; they do it because they're driven to it, they can't stop asking questions, once a puzzle grabs them, they have to pursue it because their curiosity will kill them otherwise, just as an artist is driven to create, to make, to sculpt, to paint, in an obsession that operates whether anybody ever sees your creations or not.

For a scientist, seeking those answers has to be its own reward, because most scientists do not get paid big bucks to do it, and for all your slaving on a paper there might be a dozen people in the world who will care about the same problems deeply enough to read your precious work end-to-end. It's a kind of egotism that allows you to assert that what you're doing is important, even if virtually no one else recognizes it, much as artists often assert that their work is important even if most people don't like it.

Clearly Zare is thinking of certain kinds of performance artists, whereas I am thinking of certain other visual artists, but in truth we're both right and we're both wrong and we're both oversimplifying, because both scientists and artists are people and people are complicated and diverse.

What our seemingly opposing analogies have in common is the notion that science and art can be compared. That works because science is actually a creative activity. The notion of "creative science" sounds oxymoronic: scientists don't create anything, they're trying to understand something that already is, right?

But the act of understanding is a form of storytelling, of creating a story that fits a sparse set of facts. To come to a new understanding of something, you have to imagine something that nobody else ever imagined before. And to develop a new understanding that contradicts what we have previously held to be true requires a special kind of creativity, the ability to ask and follow "what if?" questions to possible realities we've never imagined.

Ask a scientist what they do when they have free time. (Not just any scientist: don't ask that question of anybody who is on the tenure track or who subsists on soft money or who has any children under the age of 5 unless you want them to laugh in your face or wring your neck.) You'll find that a great many of them make things or perform things with nearly the same level of obsession that they apply to their work.

I'm no exception; I've shown you before some of the ways I express my creativity in my precious moments of free time. To see a lot of other creative scientists, check out the awesome tumblr This Is What a Scientist Looks Like.

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