Art -vs- Science: An Artificial Divide

I was paging through the weekend Wall Street Journal this morning and practically jumped out of my chair when I saw Walter Murch’s face looking out from the “Review” section.

Murch is an Oscar-winning film editor who has worked on movies like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain.  I know his face so well because he is featured prominently in an excellent documentary about film editing called The Cutting Edge that is on the extra-features disc of my DVD of Bullitt.  (Wikipedia entry on this documentary is here.)

The interview/profile in today’s Wall Street Journal, “From ‘The Godfather’ to the God Particle,‘” is occasioned by the upcoming release of a new film, opening next month across the country, called Particle Fever.  (If you’re not a WSJ subscriber and you are prompted to log in after you link to the article from my blog, try opening a new tab and doing a search for the article’s title and the date, March 22, 2014.  You may be able to get the entire article that way, without needing to log in.)  Particle Fever is a documentary directed by Mark Levinson (The English Patient).  The film recounts the 2008 launch of the Large Hadron Collider and the experiments done there leading to confirmation of the Higgs boson, or “God particle.”

So interesting!  I love this Don Lincoln TED video illustrating physicist David Miller’s cocktail-party explanation of how the Higgs boson works.

Today’s WSJ article also describes Murch’s longstanding interest in science.  He is very interested in and knowledgeable about physics, particularly string theory.  He also appears to be a real Renaissance man.  I just took a look at his Wikipedia profile, and in addition to his film work, he has translated short stories by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte.

Given a tape recorder as a 10-year-old, Murch was fascinated with sound.  His first work in film was actually in editing and mixing sound for Francis Ford Coppola, whom he met in film school (along with George Lucas, with whom he would also go on to work).  If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, you no doubt remember the image of a ceiling fan in Martin Sheen’s Saigon hotel room juxtaposed with the sound of a helicopter.  That was Murch’s work.  During post-production on Apocalypse Now, according to the Wall Street Journal article, Murch also helped Dolby develop a new way of reproducing sound in theaters that would make viewers “feel” what was happening on the screen.  In fact, Murch is credited with coining the term “sound designer” to describe the contributions of people like him and Ben Burtt (Star Wars) to a film’s production.  (Almost two years ago I wrote a post about a great DVD-extra on my copy of WALL·E featuring Ben Burtt talking about the history of sound design.  Read it here if you’re interested.)

Our society seems to have allowed itself to become artificially separated by disciplinary boundaries.  The almost binary world view created by the resulting “silos” is odd to say the least and catastrophic to say the most.  We need more Walter Murches.  Not to mention more Mark Levinsons, who in addition to directing Hollywood movies has a Ph.D. in particle physics from Berkeley.

Every time I read about funding for STEM education being increased while budgets for art education are slashed I cringe at the shortsightedness.  Art and science nourish each other, and studying each in isolation so unnecessarily handicaps students and shortchanges society.

Ars sine scientia nihil est (“Art without science is nothing”) is the famous dictum attributed to 14th-century French architect Jean Mignot.  The opposite is also true.  It’s fascinating to learn about harmonics and fractals and the mathematical underpinnings of the universe.

Stuff like the golden ratio, for instance.  Science is made of art, just as art is made of science.  You can see it in the proportions of Greek and Roman architecture.  You can see it in these photos of fluid dynamics made by students of Jean Hertzberg at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The 21st century will be an era of integration.  Generalists who can bridge multiple disciplines will be needed to make sense of and find meaning in the overwhelming amounts of information produced by Big Data.  People who understand this are way out ahead of those who don’t.

The press kit for Particle Fever includes a quote from one of the scientists featured in the film.  I think I’ll use it to close this post:

Why do we do science?  Why do we do art?  It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make use human.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
This entry was posted in Art and music, Creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, Higher education, Life, Movies and film, Natural world, Nature, News, Popular culture, Science and nature, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Art -vs- Science: An Artificial Divide

  1. paulrwaibel says:

    Thanks. I couldn’t agree more. I especially liked your closing quotation.

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