Scientists who make art

Today marks the start of December! Alongside wrapping up a semester of science classes and grading projects, papers, lab reports, and final exams, I will be out and about, sharing music with audiences in communities near me.

About twice a year, schools across the United States frequently offer an array of arts events at the close of each semester. In December, choirs, bands, orchestras, theatre groups, art classes, dancers, and individual music students are often busy presenting wintery/holiday-themed concerts, recitals, and displays. In the spring, cheerful performances wrap up the year. As a parent, I have enjoyed many such events by and with my kids. And I used to be one of those kids. I, too, I was usually busy in December and May, often playing music in different ways. Although I’ve tried out a number of instruments, I have stuck with a quirky one for most of my life: handbells. Many people aren’t very familiar with them, or have seen small groups performing in a church. I started with handbells in a religious setting but was able to expand beyond that in my adult life in college and nonprofit handbell ensembles that play varied repertoire throughout the year. The December and May calendar still dominates my performance schedule, nicely accommodating months of preparation for a full concert repertoire twice a year. 

Handbells. Two octaves of notes can be played together in one hand. Each person in the ensemble plays just a few of the notes on a music staff. You have to work with a team to create a piece of music. Photo credit: My own photo.

Some people express surprise when they learn that someone who is a scientist by training might have hobbies far removed from science. I’ve always been a little surprised at their surprise. I took piano lessons long before I ever had a formal science lesson. I had dedicated art and music class periods in elementary school, even while the rest of the academic curriculum was conducted all together in our general classroom (sadly, that’s not always the case in some schools today). I’m a terrible 2D/3D artist, but music is my most important diversion away from work and family and an important part of my emotional life, social circle, and entertainment. 

Every once in a while, an article pops up profiling famous scientists who pursue the arts, or artists who pursue science. In 2017, the Washington Post profiled several famous musicians and their science training, as did iO9 in 2011. An internet search even turned up a delightful article in the journal The Science Teacher from 1956 (!) that profiles people who were trained in science but became musicians, people who were scientists that performed music, and scientists who (of course) became teachers.

Albert Einstein learned violin as a child. He is shown here at a charity concert he played at the New Synagogue in Berlin in 1930. Photographer unknown, unmarked – older than 70 years [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From what I can tell, formal research is generally lacking about how many scientists pursue music and why. But of the various arts, music is often singled out as a pursuit by scientists. Some have suggested that performing music overlaps with many of the same things that scientists enjoy about doing science itself: being creative, solving puzzles, using math, collaborating with others, contributing to community, and so forth. But of course, music is also outlet that lets scientists step away from their work and refresh their minds and spirit by focusing on something different and pleasurable for a while. A 2014 article in the science journal Nature, “Science and the arts: Rock and research,” by Karen Kaplan explores these ideas further, using interviews with scientist-musicians. Eva Amsen also explores connections between scientists who play music in her science and culture blog, “easternblot.”

Meanwhile, the benefit may also go the other way. Nick Griffiths at the “Helix” blog at Northwestern University explores the idea that musicians themselves may make better scientists. Even Einstein himself had thoughts on science, music, creativity, and intuition, as described by Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein in Psychology Today in 2010. The popular 2007 book This is Your Brain on Music, by neuroscientist/musician Daniel Levitan, explores the role that music plays in our lives, our brains, and why. As a musician and scientist, I found the connections fascinating. Music is an important part of many cultures and individual experiences, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that so many scientists engage in music making in their spare time.

Scientists can be found in all areas of the arts, however, such as television actor Mayim Bialik, who has a PhD in neuroscience, all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci, who is famous for his art. Druba Deb took a look at the interplay between art and science in her 2015 article, “Being a Scientist and an Artist in Parallel,” for the ASCB (American Society of Cell Biology). In fact, many scientists who aren’t themselves prone to moments of artistic endeavors are capitalizing on the power of different art forms to create new collaborations and create projects that communicate science in new ways and create a more holistic approach to thinking about elements of the natural world. For one perspective on this idea, see Jaya Ramchandani’s recent blog entry on Medium, “Artists and Scientists: Why Collaborate?” Art and science collaborations have become popular and are springing up in many communities around the country.

Science has always relied on art to best tell the stories of the natural world. “49th plate from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur of 1904, showing various sea anemones classified as Actiniae.” Photo credit: Ernst Haeckel [Public domain]

I think that science and STEM education work best with context in which to place them, and we should take advantage of opportunities to explore various intersections of the human condition: literature, movies, art, history, spirituality, etc. As a scientist, an educator—and yes, a musician—I find that a well-rounded background and diverse pursuits have created a better version of me and my work in science.

So, please, keep reading about science. But also take some time to enjoy the hard work of the students and performing artists who are busy this month sharing their talents and hard work with you. Have a wonderful season of light and peace!

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