Art and science

I recently saw an article about a section of a building where the walls, ceiling and floor were all made of glass. This was fairly striking it itself – though for the more faint-hearted among us (me included) perhaps also slightly scary – but what particularly struck me was that this feat is part of a wider movement of artists, engineers and architects who are pushing the boundaries of what we thought we could do with glass. If you’ve ever been inside an Apple store, you’ll probably have noticed the transparent steps that lead up to the next level, climbed by hundreds of people every day. They aren’t plastic. They’re glass.

There are more possibilities than most people imagine contained in the world of glass, though artists are beginning to explore the potential of the medium – which you can see by taking a look at the collection of contemporary glass art housed in the Museum of Glass which, incidentally, encourages artists to get creative with glass with the help of their resident ‘Hot Shop’ workshop team.

Baby Squid, Celeste Nelson

Of course, glass as a material is particularly intriguing, because no one really knows what it is – liquid? solid? – and few people understand how it is usually made. But as part of the wider picture, art’s new forays into the world of glass are representative of the increasing, fascinating links between art and science more generally.

There have been connections between art and science for a long time. Leonardo da Vinci, the epitome of the Renaissance man, divided his time between painting and exploring scientific possibilities, the most famous of which are perhaps his designs for flying machines. But it is rarer to find a time when a number of artists and scientists are looking for contact points, and when institutions of scientific learning lean towards art as part of the celebration of their own discipline.

Isolated Hairpin, Melissa Green GS

This is one of the notable factors about the Princeton University ‘Art of Science’ competition. The organisers ask members of their scientific community to bring forward examples they have found during their research of tools, images or discoveries which may have varying degrees of utility as science, but are unusually beautiful and worth sharing. Some of the results, as you can see from the images in this post, reproduced here with the kind permission of Princeton University, are certainly worthy of the name of art. The first image of this post, by the way, is of baby squid. Really.

That competition finds the art in science, but there are plenty of artists who investigate areas of scientific or technical knowledge in order to serve the purposes of their artistic inspiration. Andy Goldsworthy, for example, mastered elements of optics and engineering in order to create domes made of slate slabs which are built without the help of cement or other such materials, for the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Ned Kahn uses scientific principles to frame natural phenomena of which we are often unaware, and his work is a common sight in many art institutions.  His interest came originally from time he spent in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, which is devoted to the sights and rules of the natural world, and has blossomed into an artistic career.

Wrinkles on PDMS in Oil, Oliver Graudejus

And then of course there’s digital art, which began from the seeds of a computer system its designers couldn’t imagine would ever have a non-scientific use. Controversial as it may be, digital art has certainly become a firm part of the contemporary art scene and it is almost difficult to imagine the art world without it.

Part of what all this says, of course, is that an artist should use all of their passions in the development of their art. But it is especially interesting that this is the case even where those other interests include areas like science, which seem to be distinct from the art world. Perhaps it is partly that in an age where information is readily available, and where individuals and institutions are interested in exploring all kinds of possibilities in many directions, artists are making full use of the situation to delve deeper into the potential of their materials and their talent.

Have you taken your art in unexpected directions? Do you use scientific or technical techniques or knowledge when you are creating a piece of work? Are you excited, intimidated, puzzled by the possibilities of collaboration and inter-disciplinary work? I’d love to know, so do share in the comments.

Update: The Department of Engineering at Cambridge University ran a photography competition for beautiful images resulting from engineering projects. The results, which you can see here, are quite stunning.


  • Hi Agora

    My work of recent years has been focused on Climate Change and earth science. I have been reading a lot of books, doing the research on how man is changing the ‘thumbprint of God” (patterns of the earth) by his actions in agriculture and mining…..both activities that are in abundance in the region where I live (central NSW in Australia).

    Here in Oz, though the arts is now about ‘product’ and ‘branding’ and the serious issues are often overlooked which is frustrating for an artist that takes subject matter seriously. But to the government’s credit, the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage & the Arts purchased one of my large works (a work done in collaboration with an aboriginal artist – Ngari Reynolds) and the artwork now hangs at the entry to the Climate Change Conference Rooms in Canberra.

    I have always felt that science and the arts have synergies…….and that there is an abundance of abstract images that exist in science (nature) that are ‘real’ and also, very beautiful and thought provoking.

    Keep up the interesting subject… is intriguing to find scientists looking our way…..

  • Art, like hope, springs eternal. Th evolution of art, as with many other things, should proceed at its own pace and yet should still be true to its traditions…just as glass slowly flows over time as a liquid within the solid framework of its form. Make it change, force it, and it breaks and it ceases to bear any relationship to that which it once was. In my own work I can take subject matter and use exposure times and ambient lighting and make it appear to be something different, but I have to let the work come to me…there are days and days when nothing offers itself to my eye; there are days when you wish you had more than the 12 or so hours of daylight that is available.

  • After a long history of separation that was seemingly needed to understand certain thing we are going into a new age of letting things come together again as all this separation stuff is not real but artificial, might it be between different sciences, might it be between art and science, might it be between economics of different countries that show us now in terms of globalisation that we are all connected. The truth is that we always were on an unseen level but the farther we recognize this the more this conneciton also manifests in our seen- material world. If you remember the first sciences and even art- pagan art- have its origins in spirituality and religions- then everything was divided and now everyhing is slowly growing together also in the “outside” world as a separation never really existed.
    I think in a certain way there was always a connection between art and science on a seen and an unseen level- when Leonardo da Vinci studied the body going to the pathology art changed, when we got new means of transportaiton and cold go inot different countries and cultures more easily, when moving pictures were invented- film and fotografy, art changed – so I think there is a long history about the connection of art and science and all around us is creation an therefore in a certain sense art.

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