- Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation
The problems with this slim volume start with its title. Edwards, whose primary job is researching drug delivery systems at Harvard, introduces “ARTSCIENCE,” but the term means little more than scholarship, creativity and invention in which the creator exploits the rigor, repeatability and search for truth of science as well as the informal playfulness, non-repeatability and search for interpretation of traditional arts. This is a caricature of both science and art, of course, as some “pure” science research is deeply playful and some “pure” artistic creation is deeply analytic, a point that Edwards first recognizes halfway through the book. Such interdisciplinary work is very old indeed and readers will wonder whether Edwards is saying anything novel when he refers to Jan van Eyck’s invention (actually, refinement and exploration) of oil paints at the beginning of the 15th century as “artscience”? Or to X-ray imaging of a Rubens painting, which reveals its underdrawings and pentimenti and thereby enriches our understanding of the work, likewise as “artscience”? (The practice of imaging of paintings with X-rays is nearly as old as X-ray imaging itself.) One can cite numerous other such examples.
The second problem is with the subtitle. There is little if anything “post-Google” in the book: nearly nothing on the Internet, on Google and Internet search and creation, on mash-ups or on innumerable other topics to which the subtitle alludes. Nor, for that matter, is there any special focus on the younger “post-Google generation.”
The lion’s share of the book consists of episodes or anecdotes in which a scientist or artist gets some benefit by [End Page 403] dipping into the “other” discipline, for instance in gaining insight on a scientific problem by beholding a work of art or gaining inspiration for new compositional methods by reading about science. Most of these anecdotes are somewhat arbitrary and less than compelling because they are based heavily on Edwards’ acquaintances in Cambridge and Paris. We learn of the engineer who is chosen to lead the Louvre’s conservation science department (decades after similar departments were thriving at other museums), of a chemist who gets a technical insight by looking at a painting, a pianist/composer who is so intrigued by chaotic transformations that she studies math and engineering in order to derive new ways to compose musical variations, a researcher who is also an expert skier, a health worker who considers her photographs not as art but instead documentary evidence about the AIDS epidemic, a medical doctor with a passion for photography, a scientist with a passion for cello. Such anecdotes are hardly news to readers of Leonardo, who likely are—and surely must know dozens of—such people. Incidentally, “passion” and its cognates are the most overused words in this book, but because Edwards explains so little of the depths of the cross-disciplinary ideas in each anecdote, readers are unlikely to experience such passion themselves, or have their interests much piqued.
Toward the end of the book, Edwards lists a few vague guidelines or principles that he believes stem from these anecdotes: Incorporating both science and art can accelerate the adoption of ideas. Process matters more than results. Results are never bad. Some institutions have barriers between the art and science worlds that might profitably be reduced. And so on. Because so much that went before is described in inadequate detail, and whole sections bear little if any relevance to these principles, and the principles are so vague themselves, readers will find them obvious or not compelling. This book will change few minds. Nevertheless, Edwards is trying to put his ideas into practice at Le Laboratoire, an interdisciplinary center in Paris, but it is surely too early to judge its possible successes. Perhaps someday he can write a deep account of the lessons learned from his experiment.
In the meantime, readers should stick to the best books in the large literature on creativity in science, technology and the...