Art, Science, and Ignorance

Nina edge

Nina edge

Nina Edge in her installation “Vitual Duality” (photo 1994, ICA commission)

I’m a photographer. I create portraits, and abstract/experimental images based on the human body. Some say I fit comfortably within the range of arty stereotypes. My partner of the last 19 years is an Oxford University academic who definitely conforms to some of the stereotypes of the geeky scientist.

People are often surprised that we’ve thrived as a couple for so long. To some, our relationship seems unlikely, reflecting the supposed gulf between scientists and the rest of society. Scientists are supposed to think, communicate and behave quite differently to the rest of us.


A recent experience forced me to question the extent and significance of this gulf. I’ve just returned from a trip to the old university town of Leuven in Belgium. My partner, a respected scientist specializing in pheromones, was invited to give a TEDx talk (TED stands for Technology, Education and Design. TEDx talks are organized under the auspices of the non-profit TED foundation which has the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.)

The challenge for speakers at the Leuven TEDx event  – all eminent research scientists – was to craft and deliver talks related to their areas of expertise, but with a largely civilian (non-specialists and non-scientists) audience in mind. Successful TED talks tend to be less about hard knowledge per se, and more about inspiring, challenging and entertaining an audience, by presenting fresh new ideas about the world and how we experience it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the subject matter of some of the talks. In their different ways several of the speakers challenged my most basic assumptions about what science is, and what being a scientist is about.

The outstanding talk for me (apart from my partner’s of course) was given by Professor Stuart Firestein, intriguingly entitled “Celebrating Ignorance”. He is a Professor in Biological Sciences at Columbia University, New York.

His talk took a wry look at conventional notions of knowledge, fact and the scientific process. Generally we think of science as an orderly phenomenon – a collection of proven facts about the world. Professor Stuart does not see real science as like that at all. In his experience, few research scientists use a formal scientific method. He sees successful scientific research as often being as much about farting around in the dark as engaging in a rational definitive process.

This much fuzzier reality occurred to him as he reflected on his dual role as a professor (teacher), and investigator (research scientist). He teaches a lecture course based on a hugely comprehensive and highly respected text book that purports to impart a lot of knowledge about the human brain. He was concerned that some of his students might be left with a mistaken impression that mastering its text would amount to knowing all there is to know about the human brain.

At the same time, in his research lab, he, his students and colleagues often stumble around and come up with interesting questions, in an open ended process he often finds exhilarating. He also noticed that even when scientists were gathered more spontaneously, away from their labs etc. they tended to talk as much about what they didn’t know – about all the open questions and problems they were facing – as what they did.

He has seen this phenomenon as important enough to warrant a new university course and book, about ignorance. Of course, he’s not talking about the bad or negative model of ignorance that carries connotations of wilful denial of incontrovertible facts, rampant prejudice etc. He’s interested in the more fascinating kind of ignorance described by J.C. Maxwell, the distinguished 19th century theoretical physicist: “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” George Bernard Shaw put it even more bluntly ”Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.

Science is much more than just an ever accumulating amount of clear and reliable facts or information. The purpose of knowing a lot of stuff isn’t just to know a lot of stuff, it’s to be able to frame ever more thoughtful, interesting questions. Knowledge leads us to higher-quality ignorance.

Returning to the great art/science divide, supposedly reflected in my relationship with my partner. It turns out that we have more in common than I’d previously considered.  In our respective working lives we’re both exploring, asking questions, never quite arriving, but enjoying a fascinating ride en route. Imagination and creativity are important to both of us. We are both wrestling with difficult questions that matter to us, and we both need to be creative in the ways we go about it, and communicate about it.

Perhaps I was not as brave in choosing to share my life with a scientist as it might seem. As I remember it, very early on, my partner appealed directly to my vanity by declaring that he’d already encountered and enjoyed my photography, long before we first met each. Does this prove that scientists can have impeccable artistic taste?