Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Science: A Creative Outlet

Today’s guest blogger is Eilat Glikman. Eilat is an assistant professor of physics at Middlebury College in Vermont.  She studies dust reddened quasars and their role in quasar/galaxy co-evolution, as well as faint quasars at high redshifts. Eilat has two young children ages 8 and 5 and is dedicated to finding that elusive formula for work/life balance.

When I was a postdoc at Yale, I participated in a program intended to expose middle school girls to science via a hands-on approach that made science accessible and fun.  The program, Girls’ Science Investigations (GSI), brought middle-school girls to Yale four Saturdays a year to explore topics in science.  Some girls came because they were into science and wanted to get more of it, others came with school groups, others still were brought there by their parents as an enrichment activity.  So, while most of the girls were already science fans, there were many girls that were reluctant about the whole thing.  When I volunteered, I especially enjoyed speaking with the reluctant girls.  I wanted to find out why they weren’t interested in the activity.  What was it about science that turned them off?

One answer that I frequently heard was “I’m more of an arts person” or “I’m not a science person, I like writing and creative stuff”.   When I hear this, I often think of myself and my own story of becoming a scientist.  I may have thought like this too at one time, but now I view my scientific work as a creative outlet that feeds me in the same way painting and drawing once did. 

You see, I was once the ‘art girl’.  Many of my childhood friends would probably be surprised that I am a scientist and that I didn’t become a professional artist.  From a very young age I was the class artist, took art for four years in high school and got to show my work at local exhibits.  One of the things I loved about creating art was that it came easily to me and the results always made me so proud.  I even minored in art in college (briefly, before transferring to another institution that didn’t offer art as a minor) so I got to hone my skills with some formal training. 

To boot, growing up in Israel, I was a voracious reader, loved to write stories and poems and had a tough time with math.  Fractions totally confused me.  My parents were even called in for a conference to discuss my math problems, which sent me the message in third grade that math wasn’t my thing.  But I could draw and read and write and those were my strengths and I embraced them.

If I hadn’t moved to the United States at age 11, where suddenly language was not my strength, I may have become a writer or a poet.  But even though I advanced steadily in my reading by the end of my first year, getting through books and writing essays was a struggle.  However, I noticed that I had already learned the math that was being taught in my American sixth grade class.  Suddenly, math was my strong subject!

I continued to be the ‘artist girl’ throughout high school, but I never felt a desire to do it as a career.  And once I started learning biology, then chemistry and physics I fell in love with the challenge.  I loved that science was hard.  It didn’t come easy, which somehow made it worth it.  And by the time I was applying to college I knew I wanted to be a physics major. 

Today, I hardly paint anymore*. Mostly because there isn’t enough time, and because oil paints and small children are not a very easily handled combination.  Yet this realization doesn’t make me sad.  Do I miss painting? Sure.  But I do not feel that my creative side is stifled. 

That is because the scientific process is a creative process.  Every aspect of scientific research stokes my creative mind.  From identifying a problem and thinking of how I might want to approach solving it, to designing my observing plans, to outlining my papers and making plots (oh, how I love making plots!).  Every step of the way I am being an artist. 

In many ways, art and science are so very similar.  Artists have a message to communicate.  So do scientists.  Artists explore and experiment with color, hue, shape and medium.  Scientists explore the natural world and seek its explanation. And, crucially, artistic talent and mathematical talent both improve with practice.

And this is the message I sought to convey to the reluctant girls at GSI.  It is also the message I hope to impart on the undergraduates I teach, most of whom are humanities majors drawn to the liberal arts.   There is no conflict.  You are not limited by your creative side, you are enhanced by it!
* The image above is one of the last paintings I made circa 2005 of St. Emilion in France (from a photograph take on a trip in 2001).  I love how the rooftops pile up on each other and juxtaposed against the horizon in the background, distorting the perspective of the image.