In this age of specialisms and niching, we’re all told to be good at something (see last issue). But by that many people usually mean for us to be rubbish at everything else. We’re streamed and channelled in our education system to hammer home the messages that we can study science OR the humanities, be an artist OR technician, languages OR mathematics etc.
Like many others who came through the state school system in the UK, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do German because I was doing Physics. The system wasn’t flexible enough for that combination of subjects so they had separated the sciences and languages out. The school was obviously unaware that German was the language of physics (until the aftermath of the second world war), just as French had been the language of Chemistry a century earlier. So I chose the science route and amazed my fellow students and teachers by my magical ability to draw. It was almost as though their brains were shortcircuiting, ‘You can draw and yet you study science? That does not compute!’
This pigeon-holing is dangerous to our creativity. Creativity is a whole-brain activity. A truly creative person is both artist and scientist. The greatest scientific discoveries were made by individuals who thought visually, as an artist thinks and had the imagination necessary to push out the boundaries of what was possible. Harry Kroto who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996 loved graphic design. That helped him create two dimensional data into a 3D model of carbon-60. (Interestingly enough my degree dissertation was involved in analyzing a tiny, tiny bit of this work). Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and form have a creative edge. The greatest artists knew how the physical world worked for them to be able to create form from chaos.
So why can’t we be polymaths (person of wide ranging knowledge or learning)? If we want to be creative individuals with something to offer the world then I’d say that it is imperative that we become whole, both artist and scientist.