The last question a student asked of my work after my Portland Community College lecture was, ‘What do you think scientists will gain from collaborating with artists?’ This was probably the most important question of the evening. I didn’t have a very good answer at the time because it’s a question I am still working through myself.

I told her that I don’t know. It was the honest answer. But I have some thoughts on what I would like to see happen through collaboration, some of which I attempted to explain.

I think that too many people are disconnected from their own creativity. This is a societal problem that causes discontent and stagnation.

I think that too many people have misconceptions about what art is, what it looks like, and whom it is that can make art. They conclude that it’s not them.

Ideally I would like more people, scientists included, to understand what art is, in the broad sense. Making a painting is not the same thing as making art. Paint is only a material. The art is in the idea and the process of manipulating and editing that idea into something worth manifesting in the world. The artist’s use of their chosen medium is a skill, it’s a tool used to transform the idea into a tangible form, but it’s not the art itself.

More importantly, I would like people to become better connected with their own creativity. I would like them to not edit or suppress their creativity because they think they can’t write a poem or paint a painting. But they are free to discover their own medium of choice, which may have no resemblance to their personal idea of what art is supposed to look like. I would like them to grapple with and refine their chosen medium, play with it and learn from it, and to have it within their grasp as the stage on which their ideas are manifested and transformed.

I do not think that everyone can be, or even should be, an ‘Artist.’ But everyone does have the need to be creative. Creativity is a human need. We are inherently creative beings. Too often our institutions fail to recognize this, including science.

So much emphasis is placed on what we know that it can be frightening to reveal to others what we don’t know. We do know some things, but the amount of knowledge we will ever possess will always be infinitesimal compared to what we don’t know. We should be able to embrace this as seeds of our own creativity. Creativity is infinite in its ability to unlock interesting questions about the unknown. Working creatively will help suppress the nagging voice of self-doubt that says you can’t do something because you don’t have the tools, or money, or background… or whatever your own personal inhibiting monster may be. It may give the scientist more freedom to spend some time playing, just for fun, with the idea she thought is too stupid to consider. But that stupid idea, if given ample creative consideration, may be the next big break-through that has eluded science for years.

What better way for a scientist to reconnect with his own creativity than to collaborate with an artist! The creative process may seem messy and unruly at first, but the great power in it will reveal itself. I admit I have feared that, as the artist in this collaboration, I have less to offer than the knowledgeable scientist does. But when I start to think about it in terms of possibly helping to unlock someone else’s pent-up creativity, I think that I have a great gift to bring to the table.

What else do you think that scientists (and others) can gain from collaboration with artists? Tell me your ideas.

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