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Art vs science?

How are art and science connected and why have they drifted apart in the school curriculm?
Makerspaces are closely linked to a range
of subjects known as STEM: science, technology, engineering, and maths. And increasingly they’re being also referred to as STEAM where we’re actually seeing arts and creativity being integrated. I’d really like to explore the relationship further between arts and science. And so today I’m joined by Tony Ryan, a professor in physical chemistry here at the University of Sheffield. Now Tony, do you think there has been historical separation between the arts and science and why do you think this is so? So I experienced that as a student myself, that I was kind of pushed down the maths, physics and chemistry track despite having a really strong interest certainly in production art and in literature.
So I think it’s been there ever since formal education. As a professor of physical chemistry how does art influence your work as a scientist? So in the past I’ve taken science students to museums so that we can look at the art from the perspective of a material scientist. So how does that Giacometti sculpture rely on the properties of that metal in order to be created? How do these different paints give different textures? What do you have to have in the rheology, how a paint flows, in order to make the kind of picture that looks like it’s moving? And those have been really influential in how I teach.
And I think artists are less structured in the scientific questions they ask, right. Because once you get trained in science you kind of get narrower and narrower and narrower and narrower. So you wouldn’t ask some of these questions because they would appear to you at first glance to be stupid, right. But there’s no such thing as a stupid question, there’s only a stupid answer, right? So we want people to ask these really, really different questions in order to unlock the creativity of scientists. Much of your work focuses on new and innovative solutions to global problems. How does art influence your work?
So I’ve spent a lot of time, I’m quite old now, and I’ve done a lot of kind of really basic fundamental science around how atoms and molecules organise themselves. But as I’ve got older and seen what’s happened to the world around me, I’ve become less interested in what I would call the fourth decimal place. And more interested in how we apply science to solve problems, to solve broader societal problems. And in doing that I’ve interacted with people from arts and humanities but also from social sciences to answer those questions. And that’s how all of my research now, all the things I try and understand, are how to use science and engineering to benefit society.
Science often isn’t a very good way of communicating those solutions. But art can be. So often I work with artists in a way where we use the art as a Trojan horse. So one of your projects, Catalytic Clothing, sounds incredibly interesting. Can you tell us a bit about that? Well that started because an 11-year-old girl asked a question, right. And the 11-year-old girl said, can we use ambient energy to clean up the environment? And then I’d read something about photo catalysts. So things that drive chemical reactions that are powered by light. So there’s the ambient energy. And if you’re a chemist like me, you support catalysts on a surface. But I’d come from a place where we were making clothes.
So I calculated the surface area of all the fibres in the suit I was wearing. Said, I’ve got it. We can use our clothes to support the catalyst and make people into walking air purification machines. And that’s what we set out to do and hence, Catalytic Clothing. And so we made a massive poster, and I calculated the surface area of all the fibres in the poster and how much catalyst we put on, and worked out that it would take out the pollution of 12 cars. One poster.
You can still more or less see the outline. So it was fixed to the wall on that wire frame and when the sun hit it, it was making peroxide. And then the peroxide was reacting with the nitric oxide that the cars are producing and making nitric acid. And nitric oxide causes respiratory disease but nitric acid dissolves in water. So the first time it rained, I ran out with a bucket and collected the water coming off it because I didn’t know how much nitric acid had been made up there. And I didn’t want to burn any students. Because we just didn’t know anyway. It turned out it was you know pH 7 and 1/2, so it was really no big deal.
“I write in praise of air. I was six or five when a conjurer opened my knotted fist, and I held in my palm the whole of the sky, and carried it with me ever since.”
The catalyst that we used on Catalytic Clothing and on the poem, In Praise of Air, is a compound called titania, titanium dioxide. And what happens is light from the sun comes in, and it comes in little packets called photons. And one of those little packets hits the titania and ejects an electron into an excited state. And the excited state of the electron needs to get rid of that energy so it can go back into the titania. And so it gets rid of the energy by passing it to the air. Actually passes it to oxygen and that oxygen gets really excited and that reacts with water.
And when it reacts with water it makes peroxide bleach and basically cleans the air by bleaching it. And takes out the pollutants that come out of the cars. How important is it for children and young people to have a balance then in their education between arts and science? I think - so for me it’s really, really important that we get that balance right and that we don’t send people down one track too early. So clearly, there are people who are destined to be theoretical physicists and they need training in those kind of technical and mathematical things. But at the same time they’re actually the most creative of scientists. So they need to keep that track of creativity open.
So for those reasons it’s really important. And then for the kind of practical scientist and engineer, then the questions that need to be solved are often placed in society in the best way by people who have wider interests. So please have wider interests.

Leonardo Di Vinci once said “Study the science of art. Study the art of science…Realise that everything connects to everything else.”

However, most modern-day curricula and education systems keep science and the arts very separate.

In this video, Alison speaks to Tony Ryan, Professor of Physical Science at the University of Sheffield about why these two disciplines are kept apart and what binds them together.

They also discuss Tony’s project Catalytic Clothing, as well as his collaboration with English Language and Literature Professor Joanna Gavins and poet Simon Armitage ‘In Praise of Air.’ Both of these projects use artistic design to achieve scientific outcomes around air purification.

You can see footage of Simon reading ‘In Praise of Air’ below.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

In Praise of Air. Copyright Simon Armitage 2014.

This article is from the free online

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