They might not realise it, but every scientist has at least a bit of artist in them. Back in the 1830s, when the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association) began holding big annual meetings, there was much debate about what the assorted physicists, geologists, chemists and others who went along might best be called. “By analogy with artist”, proposed William Whewell, “they might form scientist”. And so they eventually did. Although strictly speaking since the various practitioners of the arts are known as artists, shouldn’t that have led to the new word for those across the sciences being “sciencists”? I like to think it should, and that the “t” in scientist is on permanent loan from the arts, only present because the term shares lexical DNA with artist.
For me, it’s a neat, embedded reminder that the arts and sciences are more entangled than might first appear. Creativity and discipline are needed for both, and just as artists are often among the first to make use of new scientific and technological advances, scientists and the wider public can benefit from the insights and interpretations which art and artists can provide. I’ve seen time and again how key ideas, concepts and even theories can be made vivid, tangible and relevant through dance, drama and other artworks. Just as importantly they can help overcome fears that science is something best left to scientists and help it be valued and thought about. Art can’t turn audiences into scientists, nor should it try to. But it can stop them turning away from science and help them engage with how it shapes the world of today and tomorrow.