Art and Science: CAST Labs Launches with Soiree

Theral Timpson

In a former life, I was a musician. I studied orchestral conducting and was working my way up to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Or so I thought. The reality is I wasn’t a superstar musician, and it turns out I have a knack for BSing over Skype. I now spend my days interviewing scientists and business execs in the life science industry.

Naturally, I was intrigued when a former professional ballerina from France, Sylvie Leotin, recently set up CAST Labs. The name is an acronym for Connecting Art Science and Technology. Sylvie just put on her first two events, a seminar at Stanford and a dinner/discussion/performance.

After her life as a ballerina, Sylvie came to Silicon Valley and became? What else? A computer engineer. Then she went on to entrepreneurship. Being proficient at different disciplines has become rare in our age of specialization. Fields of thought and scientific discipline become ever narrower and the amount of knowledge needed just to keep up with one of them can be overwhelming. I recently interviewed Ron Davis, a veteran scientist at Stanford, and he remarked that when he was young, he read all the literature there was in the life science field. It was expected. That’s not only utterly impossible today, but keeping up with one’s narrow field of say neuroscience or within that, electrophysiology or computational neuroscience, is almost impossible.

Are the renaissance men, the Leonardo da Vinci’s of the world, a thing of the past? If we are to become excellent at our work, does this come at the exclusion of other activities? Does striving in both art and science mean that one will end up as Salieri from the movie Amadeus, a "mediocrity"?

CAST Labs Launch

As part of her project, Sylvie is asking a wonderful question. Does creating art improve the way one does science or develops technology? (Everyone is thinking about Steve Jobs and I can’t help but think what his answer would be. Have you see the plan for the new Apple headquarters?) To put it scientifically, does working in our right brain aid our use of the left brain?

CAST’s first event was a seminar at Stanford entitled “What can a scientist learn from ballet?” I missed this event but happily made it to the second event later in the week, a dinner, performance, and discussion.

The evening heated up with some live jazz, led by pianist Howard Lieberman and concluded with some very slick tango dancing (see end of video). Dinner entertainment was a couple arias from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s la Boheme, sung by Indre Viskontas. Both Lieberman and Indre perform on the side. Lieberman is an electrical engineer and the Chairman of the Silicon Valley Innovation Institute (who co-hosted the evening.) And Indre is a neuroscientist. After dinner, the two were joined by artist Michael Killen for a panel discussion with Sylvie, as moderator.

Canvassing a wide range of topics, Sylvie pushed the idea with her guest panel, and the audience, of what being an artist can do for science. We heard that art opens the brain to think differently. That being creative in an art leads to new ideas and innovation in other fields.

Asked whether art is more inspiration or perspiration, Indre conceded in her case, perspiration. “Art is being ready, through hard work and application for when the inspiration happens,” said the young diva/scientist.

Sylvie provoked panelist and artist Michael Killen (his 24 foot long painting called Sustainability will be hung in a new building at NASA Ames next year) with the a book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer. In the book Lehrer argues that many 20th and 21st century discoveries in the field of neuroscience are really re-discoveries of insights of artists. For Killen, who came to Proust later in life, reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was a revelation. “I began reading this book, and was struck time after time, thinking that Proust was on to this long before science.”

Perhaps it was Howard who best summed up the evening by turning around Sylvie’s question, what can art bring to science and technology. Howard noted that science and technology are changing art. Conceding that the last century has been one of high specialization, Lieberman observed that now most artists are amateurs due to the phenomenon of the internet. “Things are reversing. We’re going back to the day a hundred years ago. Back then everyone had a piano and if you wanted entertainment you provided it yourself. We’re going back to the days of amateur artists. And science is the one that let the genie out of the bottle.”

How true. Look at the e-books, the awesome videos on YouTube done by amateurs (far outnumbered by the crap, for sure) and the insightful blogs we look at each day. Science and technology constantly change art. Movies, photography, animation--entire art forms exist as a result of new technology. The piano, my chosen instrument, was a technological wonder in it’s day.

Renaissance Persons

Still, does being an artist improve one’s ability in scientific endeavor?

For da Vinci, they seemed to go well together. My business partner, Ayanna, dug up some other examples that are more recent.

Gerd Maul was a scientist who studied nuclear physics and later vaccines. He was also a great artist working in photography, silk-screen printing, and sculpture. He saw no separation between art and science, according to an article in The Scientist written after Maul’s death last year. “He saw art in his science and science in his art,” says Louise Showe, Maul’s colleague and friend. When his university, the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, was prepared to trash an old electron microscope, Maul made use of it instead as an art piece in his backyard.

Another example is Carl Djerassi, an emiritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University. Djerassi is best known for contributing to the development of the first oral contraceptive pill, now known as simply ‘the pill.‘ Djerassi is known around Silicon Valley as the former president of Syntex Laboratories, one of the first bio ventures in the area. Djerassi also writes novels and plays. His success in science and technology has enabled Djerassi to form a marvelous art collection, some of which he donated to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In his writing, what he calls “science-in-fiction,” he explores the ethics of new scientific research. His novel, Cantor’s Dilemma, recounts a fictitious scientific breakthrough and the race for a Nobel prize. Djerassi “exposes many uncomfortable truths about how credit for scientific discoveries is given, and how competition, politics, and ego play a major role in many scientific inquiries” writes Dave Watts in his review the book in The Tech. Watts says the book “should be read by everyone who wants to know how science really works.” And who better to write about that world than one who lived it?

Science in Context

When I first moved to Silicon Valley, I was surprised to see such a wealthy region devoid of major art institutions I’d come to know in Los Angeles. The San Jose Symphony was allowed to go bankrupt in the Dot Com Bust and the only museum worth one’s time on a Saturday is the Tech Museum. In this hub of innovation are scientists and engineers too busy to be bothered with art? In this world of start-ups and venture capital is their time only for one focus-that of technology? Without art, will science and technology be meaningful?

I’m glad to see Sylvie begin her endeavor to bring more art to the scientists and technologists in the Valley. I personally cannot live without music. Well, let me be more scientifically accurate. I don’t want to live without music, without making music. Nothing can bring me to a fresh perspective like music.

At the CAST event, I found this is true for many others. And in a Q and A piece from the Washington Post earlier this year, NIH Director Francis Collins revealed that he plays the piano at night to relax and let go of his hectic routine.

This blog is part of an ongoing discussion about art and science at mendelspod. We do not produce headlines about which company’s stock was recently downgraded by Goldman Sachs or the latest discovery of an oncogene. Rather we are looking at how science and scientists fit into the larger social context. Our in-dpeth interviews seek to put a human face on the industry.

mendelspod guest blogger, Nathaniel Comfort, wrote earlier this year about why one should study the history of science. In one of the four posts on the subject, he posits that there is an aesthetic reason. For the pure beauty of science. I’m sure that da Vinci, Gerd Maul, and more would agree with Comfort. And no doubt this drives many of our scientists on. They see beauty in new discoveries of the way the world works. When this beauty is translated to another form, we call it art.

Both science and art are an attempt to understand the world around us. Perhaps art is our way to keep up with science and technology. I think that art tends to be more personal and science impersonal. Perhaps you disagree with me. What we can say is that the interaction between the two is necessary for the good of all. Sometimes this happens in a community, sometimes in one mind. At the end of the CAST dinner an older man in the audience, an architect, spoke up. “What’s missing from this discussion is any talk of imagination. The imagination is the fuel that lights the way in any endeavor.” The comment makes me think of the first tools made by mankind, created by his ability to keep an image in his mind’s eye. I think too of the first pottery and baskets. Is there really a distinction between art, science, and technology?