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Peter TorpeyMedia Experience Artist

On Scientist and Artist

Published by Peter Torpey on
13 January 2005

The long-standing and often stereotyped dialectic of the Scientist versus the Artist has been the subject of many discussions among friends and in classes I have taken. These professional titles refer to the perceived divide between analytical and creative thinking. This distinction manifests itself in other pairs of oppositional terms, as well: detail-oriented versus the big picture, bottom-up versus top-down processing, low-focus and high-focus thought, left-brain and right-brain, objective and subjective, truth and beauty.

I recently happened upon a WNYC Studio 360 radio program online addressing the nature of mathematics in the arts. Guest, the multi-talented Danica McKellar related that, in her experience, the analytical mind steps in to solve a creative problem and the creative mind presents inspiration, in an alternating fashion. I was fascinated and surprised by her notion that the two processes are modal and not concurrent operations. This is very different from the way in which I believe my mind to work. For me, analysis and creativity are both continuously present, each informing the other in a single instant. Both the internal Scientist and Artist advance in tandem facilitating each other's forward momentum. Certainly, there are moments when one mode is dominant over the other, but each is ever-present.

It's All in My Mind

Of Scientist and Artist, which am I? Ultimately, it may be determined that these two approaches are simultaneous or do take turns, perhaps in intervals varying per individual or per cognitive task. Nevertheless, I have always found the intermingling of analysis and creativity in my own mind to be the fuel of my desire to learn and create.

Certainly, some individuals favor logic and analysis to the creative and artistic, and vice versa. Colored by my own experiences, however, I had always assumed that the two ends of this spectrum of cognition could not be discrete states.

Perhaps it is a manner of thinking peculiar to a mind that repeatedly straddles the fence in assessments of cognitive aptitudes. I have found that I consistently score equal values in, albeit anecdotal, left-brain/right-brain tests; equivalently on the verbal and mathematics portions of the SAT; on the cusp of several dimensions of Jungian typology. At any given time my cognition may be at varying loci on the continuum of high- and low-level thought, somewhere between analysis and creativity, yet both are present and, I would presume more often than not, in similar proportion.

Correspondingly, from youth, I have demonstrated a proclivity towards both the arts and the sciences. Early on, I received art instruction in traditional media and participated in extracurricular music activities. All the while, working with computers, studying oceanography, electro-magnetism, aeronautics, and the like. I was always building, inventing, painting, performing.

My chosen profession in the field of visual effects is a beautiful amalgam of the seemingly disparate disciplines. It is the creative application of technology and a synthesis of physical and psychological concerns in an aesthetic context. My work is a playground for my inner Scientist and inner Artist.

One goal of this website is to illustrate how my life-long fascination with art and science come together in my work. What is more, I have come to know the similarities and congruency of aesthetics and reason, which itself is a point of fascination. I revel in the discovery of the patterns underlying both a piece of music and a computer data structure, for example; or the macro and the micro, the natural and the artificial.

The Road to Cognition

At different levels of thought, this pairing of Scientist and Artist comes into play. I would say that I intuit a significant portion of my knowledge. In this type of noesis, the known facts are assembled and form a foundation for a creative leap of intuition. Instantaneously, a detail or morsel of knowledge can be extrapolated from what is already present in the mental model. This constitutes a downward move in a cognitive hierarchy, filling in the details of an abstraction. Certainly, a great deal of knowledge is acquired empirically or through instruction, as well. In doing so, discovering a relationship between two items or a commonality in pattern moves thought upward in the hierarchy to a more general plane. This vertical movement is contrasted with a lateral move which could signify an inspiration in that information from a different branch enters in to the equation.

I enjoy creative problem solving which, by definition, is both analytic and, well... creative. Many problems are solved through deductive inference that, cognitively, is similar to intuition as described. At this broader scale, likely in the realm of conscious thought, the process is not instantaneous. Logical reasoning and the application of trial and error, even if only mental, govern rational problem solving. It is very much an analytical process. Creative problem solving introduces the element of inspiration into the endeavor. As in a paradigm shift, the theories and heuristics do not impose strict borders. Rather, just around them, solutions can be drawn from seemingly unrelated information that may bear an hitherto unnoticed similar pattern to the problem at hand. From this comes innovation; looking beyond design and intent towards new functionality.

All of this comes in to play at a high practical level where arts and sciences work together. In cinematography, the artistic vision dictates creative lighting. A 2K instrument must be placed at a high angle, to avoid shadows, at twelve feet from the subject in order to supply sufficient illumination for the desired contrast that will read on the film stock of choice at the F-stop chosen to ensure a narrow depth-of-field. The science is essential to the creation of an aesthetically pleasing image. Conversely, there would be no image to create were it not for the physics of optics. Nor would there be any of the tools of filmmaking without the underlying science. To conceive of the look for the scene, in the first place, would often require some knowledge of the equipment, practices, and language of lighting for film. It works both ways: science creates the medium to which artistic expression is applied through scientific means. While I am not suggesting that every director of photography must be so well versed in physics and chemistry as to be able to develop lighting instruments or reinvent the photographic process, a cinematographer must reason through logistical, technical, and aesthetic concerns.

I Give You My Word

In a computer science course section, I was introduced to the book Gödel, Escher, Bach. While the book lays the groundwork for understanding Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems, I was elated to find that Douglas R. Hofstadter illustrates recurring patterns in visual arts, biology, music, computer science, and number theory. I find the exploration of such interdisciplinary commonalities to be fascinating as it reveals the unity of science and art to which Hofstadter, a professor of computer and cognitive sciences, demonstrates a keen aesthetic appreciation.

In my interaction with mathematicians and computer scientists and programmers, I find that they are quite eager to derive aesthetic satisfaction in artistic pursuits, as well as in the formal systems in which they work. A particular code procedure or equation may be deemed elegant. Some enduring design patterns, theorems, and so forth communicate not only in the language of computation but with the currency of beauty. These same systems can, due to their inherent logic and rigidity, sometimes seem cold and foreign to persons of more of a fine or liberal arts persuasion. Filmmakers and artists I have known, on the other hand, are more likely to forego a detailed understanding of the science underlying the mechanics of their medium. Nevertheless, they are just as analytically minded when evaluating and employing formal and historical aspects of work in their field.

Mathematicians and computer scientists tend to demonstrate linguistic ability. The formal systems used have strict syntactic rules, symbols to which meaning has been ascribed. Much like any spoken or written tongue, their specialized languages evolve, have styles, style guides, even idiomatic expressions. Spoken languages however, are less strict, have exceptions, and can be mangled yet still communicate effectively.

At first glance, it may be difficult to find linguistic properties in artistic expression. Nonetheless, the arts still constitute communicative media, even beyond the evident cases of literature. Music theory illustrates certain rules, patterns, and techniques that have expressive value. Film editing is often likened to a language. Cuts, wipes, dissolves are analogous to a means of punctuation and have readily understood if not absolute denotations. Shot order is essential in telling the narrative, as well. Much as in spoken language, there are instances where such formal properties can be reinterpreted by context and the rules broken in order to convey additional meaning.

Schools of architecture differently balance notions of form and function. In doing so, the construction of a space can convey a sense or a feeling. The ancient Greek concept of areté informed much of the architecture of the period, altering structures so that they would be perceived as more perfect despite physical phenomena of parallax and perspective. Inverse architectural tricks have been used to exaggerate form and space to give cathedrals the appearance of greater height or make the entrance of a public library appeal to passers-by. These spatial effects communicate to the perceiver of the space some desired symbolism. Industrial design communicates similarly through affordances whereby the form of an item tells a person what it is and how it may be used.

It would be more difficult to argue that a painting would have linguistic properties. Color and form do often correspond to culturally-influenced meaning: color theory suggests warm tones can be inviting, bright reds and yellows can attract attention or suggest uncertainty. Much study has addressed the physiological and psychological effects of color. In music, certain modes/keys and chords serve a similar role. Given a cultural framework, such meanings can be likened to graphical words. Just as in spoken language, word choice (even among synonyms and due to phonemics and association), cadence, and intonation convey deeper additional meaning.

I’m an Artist but
I Play a Scientist on TV

Lay perception of the Scientist and the Artist can be similar. Both vocations are regarded with professional dignity and their practitioners are assumed to have access to specialized insight. Yet, it is often the case that the Scientist is seen as practical, making the world work. On the other hand, the Artist is a free spirit charged with making the world beautiful. I assert that there is a flaw with this absolute characterization. Starting with the assumption that the world is beautiful, the distant roles of these two types of individuals suddenly demonstrate a congruency. Each is an interpreter seeking out the inherent beauty in the world. While their means and methods may not be quite as similar, the objective is: to represent the world. One with equations, theories, and treatments; the other with words, tones, color, shadow, and light. The end result of each endeavor, each attempt at a transcendental representation is a reflection of the beauty from which we started. QED. Thus, it is not odd for mathematicians to find aesthetically pleasing the patterns that emerge from a formal system (the system itself created by an element of the cosmos) and more than one can similarly appreciate a sonata, mural, or play.

Perhaps the reason for this fallacious insight is one of accessibility. Anyone can view a painting, watch a film, or read a poem and gain some sense of artistic intent, some aesthetic enjoyment. The languages and cultural semiotic vocabularies are well-ingrained within us within a few short years, where not innate. While education in art history, architecture, music theory, or stagecraft can greatly contribute to the experience, it is not necessary. By contrast, mathematics and the sciences must be learned in order to be comprehended. Pathologists, mathematicians, engineers, economists, and chemists tend to toil in obscurity while the names of prominent architects, authors, composers, performers, and photographers are commonplace and embraced with celebrity. A glimpse of a sculpture while driving by is sufficient to impart, at the least, a cursory understanding. The work of mathematicians, for example, in its raw form, if ever seen, requires considerable attention and study.

In recent times, the Artist's pedestal has shortened slightly. The Artist is the keeper of things within: emotion, feeling. Society is increasingly saturated with diverse artistic stimuli through media, massive architectural developments, and globalization in general. A postmodern attitude entitles anyone to be critical of contemporary art and all that has come before, despite formal training. Technology has given rise to questions of authenticity in new media, as well as facilitating artistic creation by anyone. The tools of artistic creation are readily available from a store near you: computers, cameras, camcorders, paints, pianos, pens. Anyone critical of popular expression or with an innovative idea can create art. It is no longer deferred to a trained few. Filmmaking is a prime example of a newly accessible art form. In just these past several years, digital camcorders and affordable sufficiently powerful computers allow anyone to attempt a film. The Internet then allows instantaneous and relatively free distribution for consumption by the entire world. Those with talent continue, making their mark on popular culture, while others recede in discouragement or persevere by honing their skills.

Meanwhile, no one can stop by the corner Super Wal-Mart and pick up a Superconducting Super Collider to verify his suspicion of an unknown subatomic particle. Of course, this would presuppose an education in the secret lives of baryons and bosons. The instruction in and tools of science, most especially the glamorous sciences, are not readily available, even if the spirit of scientific inquiry is. Mathematicians and their cousins computer scientists are not for want of tools, yet the extended training is shouldered only by those who commit to the study of such subjects at the university level or are sufficiently dedicated to book-learning these fields. Preconceptions of difficulty, perceived dryness of the subject, or even the meme of unfounded fear often dissuade young students from even attempting study in mathematics, physics, and other related sciences.

The practical applications of the Scientist's labors are embraced once all of the inaccessible affordances of science have been hidden from view. While the Artist has drawn closer to the masses, the Scientist remains a class apart. An artistic portrayal of the Scientist would not be complete without the character mumbling obscure terms or spouting incoherent technobabble, often followed by a brief and overly simplistic analogy in order to satisfy the bewildered. What awesome powers the Scientist must have, reaching for the edges of the universe, rewriting the genetic code, exploring the invisible depths of the atom? What impressive or convoluted brains allow the computer programmer or mathematician to scribble fluently in an indecipherable symbolic language whilst delving into undreamed dimensions? With talk of the unifying Theory of Everything, curing disease, genetic engineering, traveling to other worlds, the Scientist in his or her unusual doings is credited with knowing the secrets of the universe; a most exalted respect observed with distance rather than genuflection.

While the question of whether analytical thought and creative thought are concurrent or discrete processes may prove trivial, Miss McKellar's revelation was the impetus for this discursion. Along the way, it has been interesting to note that the broader divide of Scientist and Artist, like so many commonly used, are far from clear-cut oppositions. Seldom in reality do never the twain poles of opposition meet. A dialectical definition is just a cognitive mnemonic useful in quickly assessing a bias. If a person is scrawling odd characters and mumbling long words, she must be a Scientist. If no rational solution can be divined, it is time for off-the-wall brainstorming to achieve a creative one. It is a means of characterization which, with desire and due diligence, can be refined to the appropriate shade of gray, over time.