Opportunities and Obstacles Facing Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers Deeply Engaged in the Arts and Design

Prepared By Gabrielle Carels for sead

Opportunities and Obstacles Facing Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers Deeply Engaged in the Arts and Design

“Collaborations among scientists and artists inevitably challenge biases about ethics and aesthetics, in addition to inspiring debate about big questions such as the natures of truth and beauty.”


Efforts to combine distinct entities, such as knowledge disciplines and organizational structures that have grown to pervade them, suffer from a seemingly inescapable dilemma: the terms of discussion inevitably invoke the very entities and mindsets we attempt to surpass. We try to move toward a new paradigm, yet speak in terms acculturated by the current state of things. Rooted in habits of thought and action, these terms have a stubborn tendency to recur and persist. They can inhibit the desired synthesis, ironically serving instead to reinforce the customary separation.

An imagined new reality is difficult to grasp. Once achieved, it would have its own terminology based on an evolved set of assumptions. How could our innovative predecessors have predicted proliferation of the "car" when all they could see was a "horseless carriage" – not even yet an "automobile"? We are limited by currently available concepts and terms.

So it is with discussions of "art/sci" and our attempts to leverage, through synthesis, knowledge from realms conventionally kept apart. The stakes are high and separations run deep, constituting personal and professional identities, forging career trajectories, and shaping destinies among professional generations to come.


This issue is inherent in the entire collection of SEAD White Papers. Nevertheless, we strive at least to ensure thoroughness in the discourse by including views and vocabularies from many relevant perspectives. In this particular paper, we turn from education, arts, and technology to perspectives of researchers working in realms traditionally designated as scientific, or pertaining more broadly to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. These areas are increasingly characterized by interdisciplinary studies, many involving fields commonly associated with arts and design.

We approached individuals who have become known for working in this cross-cutting way and asked them to participate in focused discussions based on a given set of interview questions. These questions appear in the Appendix. We conducted some of the interviews through face-to-face meetings in person or online, some through telephone, and some through email correspondence. We addressed the same 27 questions in all the interviews.

Altogether, 20 scientists participated: 7 women and 13 men. One of the women says she may be more artist than scientist, having started her career as a concert music composer and in the visual arts – yet, through many years of collaboration with scientists, she has developed sophisticated knowledge in materials science, quantum equations, and knot theory. One woman and two men say that as individuals they embody both the artist and the scientist for a significant amount of their work. However, the majority of respondents educated in traditional silos of scientific theory and practice, and for some of their work now collaborate with self-identifying artists and/or designers.

The respondents represent a wide range of disciplines, their chosen fields reflecting individual inclinations and interpretations of the meanings of science and work. Idiosyncrasies abound. Despite our attempt to maximize comparability of the responses through consistent interview questions, the scientists responded selectively and with varying degrees of detail. At times the responses flow from one category to the next and at times they become free-form, as respondents added their own spins on the material.

Nevertheless, through the participants' reflection on motivations, methods, and results of their work, we have amassed a rich and informative body of information. The respondents spoke generously, informally, and from direct experience. The views they express are unabashedly personal and perhaps all the more informative for their frankness.


To read the full White Paper please visit: Opportunities and Obstacles Facing Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers Deeply Engaged in the Arts and Design

  • roger malina Dallas

    danny bronac and colleagues I agree that the way that I have phrased the yasmin discussion as "how does art science practice contribute to scientific research; sets up the very dichotomy I am arguing against but I also have a deep problem as does with Danny with the 'third space' discourse- brockman etl al's third culture , E O wilson's consilience- i am just not convinced this approach is interestingly generative- i am less concerned about its positivist heritage but that I think it contextualises our activities in a world that doesnt exist any more see yasmin list for rest of discussion http://yasminlist.blogspot.com/

    August 24, 2013 16:12 Flag

  • roger malina Dallas

    From Michele Emmer, Mathematician Untill the end of the seventies I was a pure mathematician working on minimal surfaces and calculus of variation. Then I started making films on math and art, more or less 22 (including Escher, soap bubbles, Flatland....). My father was a well known Italian film maker. I also started organising large exhibitions on art and math including a section at the Biennale of Art in Venice. This work was a sort of parallel activity to my academic work. In 1997 I started organizing an annual meeting in Venice on math and culture, covering the relations between maths and art, architecture, music, litterature, films, theatre. Later, I started givind courses at the university for math and design students. My professional activity was really changed. In the last 20 years I have written books, including the one on soap bubbles in art and science, which won the Viareggio award as best Italian essay in 2010. I am a mathemician working on the connections between math and culture, mainly on math, art, architecture and technology. All these started in 1976 viewing an exhbhtion by Max Bill, with whom I cooperated in several projects thereafter. A special session of my annual conference in Venice will be dedicated to him, on the 20th anniversary of his death.

    July 27, 2013 15:29 Flag

  • roger malina Dallas

    Carol Strohecker, lead author of the white paper adds: When people think about scientists collaborating with artists, often the first thing that comes to mind is how the artists can help in communication of the scientists' work. Some of those who participated in developing this paper expressed other views: adaptation of an architect's methods resulted in discovery of the oldest known fossil, for example, and a neuroscientist believes his collaboration with an illustrator has encouraged other ways of seeing his work – to the point of prompting deep consideration of ethical questions. What other benefits might scientists and artists gain from working together? What might they learn from each other? Carol Strohecker will soon become Vice Provost for Academic Affairs of the Rhode Island School of Design. From 2006 until 2013, she was inaugural Director of the Center for Design Innovation, a multi-campus research center of the University of North Carolina system. PhD of Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1991 and the Master of Science in Visual Studies from MIT in 1986. She has served MIT's Program in Media Arts and Sciences as a Lecturer and as a Presidential Nominee on the MIT Corporation Visiting Committee.

    July 24, 2013 17:01 Flag

  • roger malina Dallas

    DOES ART SCIENCE COLLABORATION CONTRIBUTE IN ANY WAY TO SUCCESSFUL SCIENTIFIC PRACTICE ? http://xsead.ame.asu.edu/works/57 SEAD DISCUSSION : Opportunities and Obstacles Facing Scientists, Mathematicians, and Engineers Deeply Engaged in the Arts and Design We solicit invited comments to help understand the perspective of researchers working in realms traditionally designated as scientific, or pertaining more broadly to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) who are heavily involved in collaboration with artists, designers and humanities scholars. If you wish to provide a public comment for this discussion please contact Roger Malina at rmalina@alum.mit.edu. Please provide a very brief bio and a few sentences on the main argument you would like to make. We will then make invitations to selected contributors. We are particularly keen to hear the opinions of scientists and engineers involved in SEAD practices.

    July 24, 2013 17:00 Flag


Prepared By Gabrielle Carels on behalf of SEAD

Acknowledgements & Credits

Authors: Carol Strohecker, Roger Malina, Wendy Silk

Coordinator: Carol Strohecker


White Papers Steering Committee

SEAD White Paper Curatorial Committee Chair: Roger Malina 

Committee; Carol LaFayette, Carol Strohecker, Lucinda Presley

Photo Credit: Laser scan and reconstruction by Nickolay I. Hristov and Richard Phillips, Center for Design Innovation


This paper is part of a 2012-2013 SEAD network initiative to identify opportunities and challenges for research and creative work integrating disciplines of sciences, engineering, arts and design. White Papers were first posted at http://seadnetwork.wordpress.com. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1142510, Collaborative Research: EAGER: Network for Science, Engineering, Arts and Design (NSEAD) IIS, Human Centered Computing. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.



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