Home » FeatureSpring 2009

The Convergence of Arts and Science

by Fiona Soltes No Comment

convergence-art-spring2009Some thought Jessica Miles was making a mistake. Why would the Louisville, Ky., student who excelled in the sciences attend the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt rather than a science or technology institute? 

But it made perfect sense to Miles and to Vanderbilt: Learning how to communicate scientific ideas meant she needed to study both science and the humanities. Even so, the graduate of a science and technology magnet school and daughter of a scientific researcher had to defend her choice. 

Now a sophomore with a double major in biology and communication of science and technology, Miles finds herself in a creative haven with students, faculty and staff who share her Chaucer-to-Copernicus interests.

“There is definitely strong support for both here,” Miles says. “And seeing other students with equally diverse interests, that’s really encouraging, too.”

As the liberal arts center within a major research university, the College of Arts and Science serves as the junction of arts and science, promoting their inseparability, and celebrating that understanding of the one illuminates the understanding of the other. In such an environment, minds are open to creative bridges of ideas and thoughts thrive and truly anything can happen. 

Connections Between Art and Life

Senior Maggie Morrow came to the College of Arts and Science to study English. She signed up for calculus to round out her core curriculum. She enjoyed the mathematical way of thinking, she says, and one math class led to another, and then to another. Eventually Morrow became a double major in English and math. 

“When you’re writing a paper in English class, you want it to be logical and well thought-out,” Morrow says. “I never really understood how to do that until I began taking proof-based math classes. You have to think of different cases, different examples. I’ve always felt that, in higher mathematics, it wasn’t so much of a ‘this is a right or wrong answer.’ It’s more about how you’re making the argument. And that’s what writing a paper in English is all about.”

Morrow grew up in a liberal arts-based home with a father who studied history and a mother who taught drama. While that background provided her with an early understanding about the connections between art and life, others in the College of Arts and Science once struggled with the tension of seemingly competitive interests and disciplines.

Dahlia Porter features botanical and natural history prints in her honors seminar.

Dahlia Porter features botanical and natural history prints in her honors seminar.

Crossing Boundaries

Dahlia Porter, assistant professor of English, started her undergraduate career in chemistry.

 “I went to a high school where science and math were given a lot more emphasis, and I thought that’s what you were supposed to do if you were a smart person,” says Porter, whose academic interests include British romanticism and transatlantic 18th-century literature and culture. “I always enjoyed science, and loved how it relates to the world, but I also loved to write, and the science track in college did not encourage this type of expression.”

“I always enjoyed science, and loved how it relates to the world, but I also loved to write, and the science track in college did not encourage this type of expression.”

– Dahlia Porter, assistant professor of English

Pursuing her love of literature, she obtained her master’s degree and doctorate in English. Today she shares both her interests in courses such as the honors seminar, Literature and Science: Revolution to Evolution. “The outlets for expression when starting in science were not as great as they are now. The new emphasis on crossing boundaries between disciplines has changed this,” she says. 

Robert J. Scherrer, chair of physics and astronomy and professor of physics, too experienced a tug to express himself in different ways. Though he says he has always been a scientist first—and a teacher for two decades—he writes science fiction, publishing his first story eight years ago at age 42.

“When I do science, I can’t speculate as freely,” he says. “But writing science fiction gives me the ability to go off on tangents. It hasn’t really affected the way I do science. It has just given me an outlet for more crazy ideas, things I could never put in a scientific paper. It gives me a different sense of accomplishment when I write a story than when I do scientific work.”

“You look at subjects from a variety of points of view, some of which are familiar and some of which are not, then you go into points where they conflict.”

– James H. Dickerson, Assistant Professor of Physics

Scherrer’s short stories have been published in the revered science fiction magazine, Analog. He says that using his science background in his writing comes naturally, but that his writing technique is more challenging. “I had to unlearn how to write, since I had been writing science papers for about 10 years, and that writing style is turgid. It’s passive voice, very dry,” he says. “The first thing I have to do is whack myself over the head and really concentrate on getting into the fiction-writing mode. When I write a first draft, it’s usually terrible. Even if the content is there, the style is terrible.”

Scherrer is much more likely to write about sciences other than his own, he says, to keep from speculating on things he would otherwise know to be incorrect. It’s a different story, however, when he reads someone else’s science fiction concerning physics or cosmology. “I tend to be very critical of the science,” he admits. “I get all persnickety about it, and it hinders my enjoyment of the reading.”

Jay Dickerson, assistant professor of physics and life-long lover of art.

Jay Dickerson, assistant professor of physics and life-long lover of art.

Faces Agape 

Though the exploration of different interests can certainly have its challenges, it also may have unexpected benefits. Some say stretching the brain to look at certain topics from different angles allows a person to find connections elsewhere in life. 

Physics major Calen Henderson has spent his four years at Vanderbilt moving between the College of Arts and Science and the Blair School of Music. The talented astronomer and pianist doesn’t see conflict in his diverse passions. “As fundamentally different as things may seem, the reality is, if you put your mind to it and have enough passion and drive—especially if you’re helped along by excellent mentors—anything is possible,” Henderson says.

Assistant Professor of Physics James H. Dickerson says he’s accustomed to seeing “lots of faces agape” at the beginning of his honors seminar course, The Physics of Art and the Art of Physics. A first lecture, for example, might focus on the concept of color from both a physicist’s and an artist’s point of view. “That essentially sets the stage. You look at subjects from a variety of points of view, some of which are familiar and some of which are not, then you go into points where they conflict,” says the professor, who developed his own interests in physics and art history in parallel. “These questions create this space where students discover that they are welcome to probe and explore. In a very dramatic way, this gives students a sense that they should not be either frightened or discouraged by challenging topics.”

Fruitful Collaborations

Dinner discussions at the home shared by Jay and Ellen Wright Clayton often cover challenging topics. Jay Clayton is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and chair of the English department. Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton is the Rosalind E. Franklin Professor of Genetics and Health Policy, professor of pediatrics, and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. The English professor credits conversations about scientific policy and ethics for increasing his interest in computer technology, genetics and biotechnology. 

A noted scholar of Victorian literature, Jay Clayton researches the ethical and social issues raised by genetics as they appear in literature and films. He became the first literature professor to receive a grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

Introducing science students to English or English students to science, Jay Clayton says, is not about “one learning to be a scientist, or the other a skilled literary critic. It’s about each person bringing their best to the experience,” he says. “Really fruitful collaborations are starting to take place.” 

That collaborative nature and its productivity shouldn’t surprise anyone, physics professor Scherrer says. They all stem from one commonality.

“Certainly everything we do in Arts and Science has creativity at its core,” Scherrer says. “When I come up with a new idea for my research—or someone else does, even when they’re working in a different field—it’s the fact of trying to create something new and original. That’s common across the college, the thread that ties everybody together.”

 

Dinner conversation between Jay and Ellen Wright Clayton, a physician and authority in medical ethics, sparked Jay Clayton's interest in how genetics and biotechnology are depicted in literature.

Dinner conversation between Jay and Ellen Wright Clayton, a physician and authority in medical ethics, sparked Jay Clayton's interest in how genetics and biotechnology are depicted in literature.

photo credit: Steve Green, Neil Brake, Daniel Dubois

illustration credit: Jay Belmore Designs

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