What’s the difference between art and science?

Classroom Blackboard. Photo by Roman Mager

I’ve often heard it said: “[so and so] is so skilled at [such and such] that they’ve almost gotten it down to an art.”

Sometimes, though, they replace the word art with science.

Why are the two words interchangeable? No one confuses arts with sciences, so how is it that in this phrase, art can be replaced with science, and vice versa?

But if you really think about it, arts and sciences are incredibly similar.

Before you troll me in the comments, consider this: while it seems absurd these days to find artists who are scientists, is it not equally odd to find dancers who are also directors? Or psychologists who are also physicists?

What I’m saying is that within the arts and the sciences, there are numerous sub-fields that people spend their entire lives in. However, as you step back in time, these fields meld. Biology and chemistry join in the work Melvin Calvin, a biochemist who discovered the Calvin Cycle in photosynthesis. Physics and chemistry merge with Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics and the discoverer of the atomic nucleus. Both of these scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, though neither was usually called a chemist.

The further back in time, the more the sciences merge into one study. But if even further back, it will become apparent that art is simply another discipline of science. Or is it science that is a discipline of art?

The Renaissance has a classic example of an artist-scientist: Leonardo da Vinci. While celebrated for the Mona Lisa and  The Last Supper, he also designed the first tank and the first helicopter. His anatomical drawings of the human body, too, were arguably the best of his era.

And while it is true that da Vinci could be written off as a historical anomaly, I disagree. He had extraordinary contemporaries whose mastery of both the arts and sciences equalled his. Did not Michelangelo need a thorough understanding of the body’s many muscles before he carved the statue of David? Or painted the Sistine Chapel?

This pursuit of knowledge in the Renaissance, to become a person skilled in many disciplines, was so idealised that a term was developed for this kind of person: “Renaissance man”.

But these days, arts and sciences could not be more separate. I can already hear the scoffs of some dissing art as drivel. Even my science teacher once said he felt that good science students who pursued something else (i.e. arts) were wasting their potential.

But, at their root, science and art have the same progenitor. Both, no matter their superficial differences, are attempts to model life.

Science tries to model the physical world; and art, its twin, tries model human thought and character in ways science cannot. Is not a drawing of an atom an attempt to model the nano-scopic? Is not the Salvator Mundi an attempt to iconify the divine?

In the end, that’s all there is to either discipline, isn’t it? Attempts to understand life, and to model them in ways that are both clear and beautiful. And because of that, I really believe that scientists and artists should not wall themselves into their disciplines. We need communication. We need more artists-scientists. More Leonardo da Vincis. More broad minds. Because by making the disciplines work together, it will be easier to accomplish the job they both desire, is it not?

Architecture is an example of arts needing science, vice versa. While you obviously need science to make sure that the building stands and the plumbing works, you also need art to make the design of the building look nice so that people might actually want to buy it.

But what is their desire?

To model life, in all of its aspects. And that is why, at their core, art and science are the same thing.


One response to “What’s the difference between art and science?”

  1. I find this article a clear rigorous and raw, but yet honest and true depiction about how this world needs to realize both disciplines. They are a pair of wheels guiding the vehicle called life, without the other, we are likely to crash.


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