Last spring, on my first day of “Genetics and Development,” an introductory biology course, I walked into lecture to find a PowerPoint with a slide highlighting how vital “thinking like a scientist” would be in the class. Our professor began by explaining that developing this skill would require understanding how the creative process works in biological research. My interest kindled, I was eager to hear more about what I thought would be a case for a more multifaceted, humanistic approach to scientific innovation and discovery.
What followed, however, left me more disappointed than enlivened. As our professor went on to assert, imagination and creativity are important in both science and art but manifest themselves disparately. Ultimately, he argued, there are irreconcilable differences in the ways in which scientists and artists imagine, claiming scientists approach problems more logically than do artists, with more emphasis on numbers and data. To be successful, we would need to embrace our scientific skins and shed our artistic ones.
Months later, the message imparted to us — a group of soon-to-be scientists and doctors who will be responsible for shaping scientific research and clinical care — still troubles me, largely because it is so antithetical to my experience in and out of the classroom here. At the Yale I have come to know and love, science and art are far from diametrically opposed and are not even just tangentially associated; they are organically intertwined.
My belief in this interrelation stems partially from my own academic interests. As a pre-med Renaissance studies major, I am fascinated by intersections between the art, science and medicine of the era. Especially in 15th- and 16th-century Italy, at a time when intellectual spheres were less circumscribed, interdisciplinary interplay abounded. My coursework has exposed me to remarkable ways in which Renaissance artistic, scientific and literary endeavors overlapped, challenging the supposed dissonance between art and science.
To illustrate, I spent last semester in a seminar on 15th-century Italian sculpture studying artists such as Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, who practiced anatomical dissection in order to inform their portrayal of subjects. Even contemporary poets were inspired by this blossoming interest in human anatomy and started concentrating sonnets on body parts like hearts, eyes and lips, deconstructing these as if they were individual organs in cadavers, as I discovered in a Renaissance love poetry class.
I am not the only person engaging with these dimensions of the period. In fact, for the same art history seminar, another student focused on 15th-century relief sculptors’ manipulation of the chemical composition of clay and glazes to create more durable and expressive terracotta reliefs, a technique perfected through extensive experimentation. Thankfully, this kind of cross-fertilization between science and art was not confined to quattrocento Florence and Rome but continues to exist in our modern world here in New Haven!
I was struck by the potential for synergy between science and art in a recent conversation with the Yale University Art Gallery’s curator for European art, who proposed that the scientific method could be deployed by art historians in visual analyses. As he described, the core tenets of natural science experiments, including rigorous skepticism, the construction of hypotheses and subsequent testing, could also strengthen critical interpretations of artwork.
The converse is also true, as science and medicine likewise have much to learn from art. A case in point is the Enhancing Observation Skills program at the Yale Center for British Art, a collaborative project between the museum and the Yale School of Medicine. Through the program, first-year medical students study paintings in the museum’s collection. This method of scrutinizing art, intended to mirror the process of making a differential diagnosis in clinic, has been quantitatively shown to improve participants’ capacity to detect conditions like skin diseases. Growing evidence indicates physicians’ empathy toward patients also deepens as a result of exposure to art in these sessions.
To be clear, none of these points are meant to underplay the importance of a systematic, data-driven approach to scientific investigation, which I am sure is what my genetics professor was aiming to underscore. What I am trying to suggest, however, is that this viewpoint is fundamentally reductive. Divorcing science from art, and vice versa, does both a disservice. Science grounds art in empirical reason and order, while art imbues science with light, color and humanity. Given the complexity of the biological questions we have yet to answer, it is more crucial than ever to integrate art into science.
To that end, when the class is offered again this spring, my secret hope is that the first slide will read “thinking like a scientist and an artist,” because considering the additive power of science and art, I cannot imagine what future Yalies might accomplish if they were encouraged to assume both identities instead of just one.
Lily McCarthy is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .