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The Art Of Science

08/07/2015 11:54 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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On a rain drenched afternoon in Mumbai, I traversed the length of the city to visit two different centres for scientific research - one a laboratory at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, stacked with cryogenic cooling chambers and microchip etching equipment to observe in a non-intrusive way the workings of quantum computing bits; the other at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, doubling as a idea-space over the cloud with global researchers collaborating to draw spatially linked networks, while creating a space for low-cost low-key experiments that can be taken to the interiors of the country to spread scientific learning to the underprivileged and the remote - and I was struck by one fact!

Perhaps it was the drumming of the rains on the slick roads, or the spaciousness of research buildings fringed with greens glistening lovingly in the soft dimness of the monsoons, but I was amazed to reflect on how closely twinned at the soul are Art and Science.

We live in a hothouse for talent and growth today. Each stage of life or learning is marked by goals, steps, milestones and achievements. Science, as we perceive it, as we experience it, as we study it, seems deterministic, factual, driven by problem solving to arrive at the eventual solution. Business, especially a technology driven one, is at once truncated and expanded by project plans, action items, achievable targets, and eventually, investor valuations. Our educational system lets students experience scientific inquiry as neatly cascading set of instructions and a well defined path of theorems, proofs, and applications.

I had started life in another way - in a space of research and development, a memory that has faded over the years. Today, cohabiting the worlds of executive management and creative writing, I find them exhilarating but at-odds activities - one driven by goals, tasks, delegation and tracking; the other driven by open ended thinking. It was all the more startling, therefore, to reflect on something that I implicitly understood once.

Science, as my interactions reminded me, is about unhurried exploration, networked collaboration, open knowledge sharing and much more. Major breakthroughs happen not against a set timetable with predefined deadlines, but over months, years and sometimes decades, when scientists toil in laboratories, building on the works of others, discussing and debating ideas, to come to an eventual understanding of the world around us and the amazing concepts and theories that make progress possible. Watson and Crick worked in their lab, forgotten for a period of time. Even true discovery, like Thomas Alva Edison repetitively failing to create that first light bulb, took years. Noted psychologist Howard Gardner speaks of direct and indirect leaders - the direct ones command people or armies or systems, while the indirect ones influence others through their ideas. Einstein was an indirect leader, revered not for his position within Princeton's scientific research establishment, rather for the truth and insight of his groundbreaking ideas - which needless to say, developed over time.

Of course, there is a discipline to the practice of Science. Even the most absent minded professor remains cogent and coherent in her approach towards Science. After all, proof lies in repeatability and that unfailing answer arrives not by fluke but by perspiration, perseverance, patience and process. Not mindless process, predetermined and hence frozen; rather the process of experimentation, failure, revision and retrial.

Art, then, is not that different. After all, artists deal with new concepts or rethink an old idea in a new voice. The method is similar. It is about unhurried exploration, taking the time to layer paint, or string words, or stack tones. There are goals - in fact, many great artists were exceptionally prolific leaving behind huge bodies of work that live through generations. So clearly they completed their works in time. True they toiled in their solitary pursuits, perhaps even driven to madness by their desire to coalesce beauty or truth into rhyme or rhythm. Commissioned greats, from the court painters of the Renaissance to the court musicians of the monarchs, did have to deliver their works more or less on time, to mark a coronation or a birth or a victory, just as artists today must follow the lead of timelines set by their managers or producers.

Despite this, artistic work is not driven by task planning, scheduling and deadline focus. It happens by zoning out and getting into the flow. It happens by absorbing the cadence of the works of peers and predecessors, and melding it with fresh perspectives. While some level of discipline must underlie the successful artistic endeavour, like Science, at its core Art is about space, time, patience and experimentation. Art movements happen because multiple artists find voice in a particular genre of painting or music at the same time. The language of Art evolves over time, building on the classical, but absorbing the effects of newer trends, technologies, tools and more.

Imagination is not the hallmark of just the artist; true scientists gather the courage to think the impossible then set about proving it possible, with as much hot-headed determination as any headstrong artist.

No wonder that many scientific minds have been equally adept at artistic endeavours. Einstein and Oppenheimer were gifted pianists. Da Vinci pretty much defines the concept of the Renaissance man and explored natural sciences, engineering, art and sculpture. Archimedes and Benjamin Franklin were scientists and men of letters.

In the end, as imminent as deadlines may be and as essential as milestones seem, there is enough empirical evidence that what survives through centuries and get lauded as original thought takes time to hone, develop and perfect. It cannot be willed in a trice, against some externally mandated and moderated span of time. Science as Art thrives in beautifully along the space-time continuum unfettered by rules, boundaries or urgent expectations.

Science, if served like a premixed drink, can only taste synthetic. Art, if created through paint by numbers, can only fail to transport our emotions. The Homi Bhabha Centre dreams of a day when science is taught as inquiry, exploration and experiential learning even in village schools and district colleges; they would use technology to make the experience democratic and widespread, rather than rely on the merit of individual teachers. Perhaps then we could free our children for a while from the tyranny of the timetable, and allow them to wallow in the luxury of time and its interstitial moments, to observe and assess and express - in Science as in Art. Life and its lessons of timeliness, box-ticking and ladder-climbing shall reach them soon enough.

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