On Great Scientists and Their Love for Art

| August 9, 2013 | 0 Comments

So I recently stumbled upon an interested paper, which discusses the links between scientific success and art. In particular, the mentioned paper came to the conclusion that Nobel prize winners and members of various scientific societies (for example the Royal Society) were more likely to have art or a craft as a hobby. Interestingly, such conclusions had been drawn by Nobel prize winners long before such studies even existed. As it is mentioned in the article, J. H. van’t Hoft — the first Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry — proposed that imagination is directly correlated to various creative activities outside science. This was later backed up by various other scientists.

Einstein was often invited to play the violin

So just out of curiosity, let’s look back in history to some of the best scientists, who also enjoyed fine arts. Also let’s analyze how the fine arts influenced the work of the mentioned thinkers.

The first two scientists that come to my mind are the two great physicists of the 20th century — Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. Not many people, however, are aware of Einstein’s love for music. It is even said that if Einstein couldn’t be a scientists, he would have been a musician. The instrument Einstein loved mostly was a violin, although he could also play the piano. According to the biography of the great scientist, one of the pieces he has been working hard to master as a student was the G-major violin sonata by Brahms. The favorite composer of the great scientist was, however, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Einstein fell in love with Mozart’s music at the age of 13.

Another scientist, who is often mentioned having a passion for music is Richard Feynman. However, Feynman’s love for music came to him when he was older — he has mentioned that in the young days he focused solely on science and mostly ignored arts, which he later regretted. Due to his underappreciation for arts in his young days,  Feynman grew to love painting and playing the bongo drums in his later life.

Feynman playing the bongo drums.

Any such discussion on the link between science and arts couldn’t be complete without mentioning the great artist Leonardo Da Vinci. Even though Da Vinci is known for being one of the greatest artists of all time, not many people are aware of his scientific interests. One of the most fascinating facts about the personality of Da Vinci is that besides his great work in arts, he worked daily on a journal, which contained scientific observations of the world around him, inventions, studies of emotions, models for war machines and so on. This resulted in over 13, 000 pages of science illustrated with fascinating drawings — a fine mixture of science and art, which undoubtedly was fostered by the ideas of Renaissance humanism.

Another great thinker and artist from the past was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe was a German writer, poet and a politician. Yet, despite his great success in these fields, in the Conversations with Goethe, Goethe says: “As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.” This is an interesting case, because here we have an artist, science for whom was more a hobby than a profession. So arts can help scientific thinking, but scientific thinking can help creating art as well.

But how about some lesser known scientists, engineers and inventors? Let’s start with a woman of remarkable beauty — Hedy Lamarr. Hedy Lamarr was an actress and an inventor, popular for her exotic looks and popular roles in movies. Due to her mathematical talent and love for music, Lamarr invented an early technique for  spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, which was essential for wireless communication.

Excerpt from Da Vinci’s Journal

Another name that is worth mentioning, is Douglas Hofstadter, who is a modern-day polymath. Hofstadter is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning cognitive scientist, a professor of cognitive science, History, Philosophy of Science and Comparative Literature. On his free time Hofstadter is said to be driven by the search for beauty all around us — he searches for beautiful patterns in mathematics, poetry, music and so on.

The list could go on for ever, but I think that these names are enough to illustrate an important link between a passion for art and achievements in science. Albert Einstein once said: “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.” In this quote he expresses his habit of thinking in pictures and abstract objects rather then words of mathematical symbols. “The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined…. The above mentioned elements are, in my case of visual and some of a muscular type…” Einstein elaborated on his thinking pattern.

Another interesting observation regarding the thinking process of Einstein came from his son Hans: “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties”. This sentence in particular confirms the idea that art can play an important role in the scientific process. But why is it so?

Hedy Lamarr

To find the possible answer let’s look to what neuroscientists have to say about this. In 2004 the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium brought together cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities across the United States to explore the question of why artistic training has been linked to academic success. Here are the summarized results from the consortium:

  • An interest in arts often leads to higher motivation
  • There might be a genetic reason to why some people are more likely to pursue art
  • There are links between high level music training and the ability to manipulate information
  • In children there’s a link between musical training and skills in geometry, reading acquisition and sequence learning
  • Training in acting leads to memory improvement
  • Learning to dance leads to higher effective observational learning, which may in turn transfer to other cognitive skills

So what’s the conclusion? Undeniably there’s a  link between certain arts and various skills and motivation, which can lead to scientific success. The mechanism  and reasons are not completely clear, but more research in cognitive science will definitely shed some light on it in the future.

Sources and More Reading

Arts Foster Scientific Success
Einstein on Creative Thinking
Learning, Arts and the Brain
Modern-Day Polymaths 

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