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  • In Praise of Hybridity:Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Frank J. Malina
  • Roger F. Malina, Executive Editor

My father was a hybrid. He achieved success as a scientist in the nascent field of astronautics, helping develop the theory of space flight and leading the team that launched the first human-made object into space [1]. As a pioneering kinetic artist in the 1950s, he helped start the art-and-technology movement that has led to large industries in entertainment and cultural media. When I came home from school as a child, I found my father the research engineer creating artworks; that's what I thought scientists did.

In the 1960s, he socialized with other artist-scientists such as artist and mathematician Anthony Hill, artist and bio-rheologist L. Alcopley and mathematician-artist Claude Berge, member of the Oulipo literary group [2]. These were few and far between, however. My father debated the problem with his friends, such as C.P. Snow, Jacob Bronowski, Joseph Needham, Roy Ascott and Buckminster Fuller.

This year, colleagues and I have been developing a report, the SEAD White Papers Study, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and supported by the U.S National Endowment for the Arts [3], seeking to enable new forms of collaboration between the sciences, engineering, the arts, design and humanities. Artists are involved in all fields of science and engineering, from the health sciences to the nanosciences, from digital manufacturing to space technologies. They are working on the hard problems of our time: climate change, the aging of the brain, sustainable energy.

The hybrids have arrived! From teams of artists and scientists to hybrid individuals with dual careers, they are in universities, industry and the burgeoning making and hacking spaces. The demographics show that 20% of them have both a higher education degree in science or engineering and a second diploma in a field of arts, design or humanities. They often serve as "translators" able to navigate between the different ways of knowing represented by the sciences and the arts. Nature, noting the phenomenon, has asked whether new hybrid career tracks were emerging [4].

Robert Root-Bernstein has studied hundreds of successful scientists and engineers; out of all proportion with the general population, they are hybrids participating in deep avocations in the arts that they view as essential to their own scientific practice [5].

There are good reasons to have disciplines and to train scientists and engineers to drill deeply with a single-minded focus. Art is not science [6]. However, there are also good reasons to have mobile professionals who can navigate in transdisciplinary practices. The good news is that the Tree of Knowledge has been felled and we live in an evolving system of Networked Knowledge, enabled by online collaboration practices. As Hill and Berge would have said, this is a topological revolution. It is far easier to make connections in continuously evolving complex network structures than in tree structures, which rigidify as they age [7].

My father wrote, "It was my feeling that one way in curbing the misuse of technology might be if we could, through the arts, emotionally prepare young people to see the aesthetic, positive side of things and also then respond by seeing the negative" [2]. Chastened by the crimes committed using science and technology during the Second World War, he was convinced that the arts and sciences had to be connected at their very source: the human imagination and passions that drive scientific, engineering and artistic discovery. This emerging hybrid community is carrying within it the ideals of a socially robust science [8] that not only foregrounds ethics and values as core values in science and engineering but also celebrates with joy and pleasure the well-being of human beings in all their irreducible complexity.

Roger F. Malina, Executive Editor

References and Notes

1. See <>.

2. See <>.

3. The SEAD network is coordinated by Carol Lafayette; the SEAD White Paper Study is co-chaired...


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