Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems. —Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline
Science defines the rules of the world — it’s our textbook of life. It tells us what happens when we add X to Y or when we heat a liquid to Z degrees. Science is the sum of all knowledge of the natural world, formed by thought and confirmed by observation. It consists of asking questions — often big questions — and forming and testing hypotheses. It’s pure in the sense that it is governed by facts — it must be observed to be true. And while we’re surrounded by its properties at all times, science seems to largely exist on paper and in labs, making it seem perhaps complicated, esoteric, or unapproachable. Research is out of the purview of the average person as it is performed inside labs in large companies and universities and is often incredibly expensive — the Hadron collider cost $4.75 billion. It has no initial economic utility other than the acquisition of knowledge, which may be the most important pursuit. But science does connect ideas and even people. Indeed, scientific facts can be viewed as a growing web — a series of findings linking to each other, building on previous work, constantly peer reviewed. It gives us “links” quite literally — for example, the physics community created the original World Wide Web to connect people and research papers.
Engineering is the application of science to solve problems and, in the process, to invent technology. Engineering makes science practical — it gives us toilets that flush, light bulbs, cars, and computers. Simply put, engineers build things — sometimes very big things, like power plants or the Burj Dubai; sometimes very small things like an integrated circuit or an iPhone. As technology scales, it creates commerce and industry. Industries — whether the energy, software, or agricultural industries — are thus scaled versions of engineering. Engineers are governed by science, by rules, and are deeply practical, often maximizing utility at the expense of beauty. One utility of engineering is the creation of wealth, sometimes massive wealth, as in the case of Bill Gates and Microsoft, the quintessential engineering firm. And while engineering is usually conducted by private companies, we interact with it each day as we drive over bridges, type on our keyboards, and talk on the phone. In this way, engineering is accessible to all of us through experience, much more so than the more amorphous concept of “science.”
Now let’s cross the boundary from science to the humanities. At the University of Illinois, the engineers were all “north of Green Street” — that was their world. Now we’re heading “south of Green Street” into something different, into the world of design. Design is the application of technology to humanity, and in this process, designers invents products — often beautiful products — for our use. The iPhone, through design, transforms technology, produced by engineers that were governed by science, into something different — a product. To get to us, these products move through identifiable stages: from the lab (science) to clunky technology (engineering) to beautiful products (design). The designer plans and creates, whether it be user interfaces (graphic design that users interact with), everyday products like tea kettles (little banalities raised, through design, some would say to the level of art, but we’ll come back to that later), and buildings and homes (architects, after all, are designers as well, albeit on a grand scale). If engineers build, designers create — they apply art, they seek beauty, and they say things like “good fit” or that a product “has strong lines.” Design is the elegant and original use of engineering to create beautiful products, and in this sense, Apple is a design firm. Consumers identify with Apple products; many believe they are beautiful.
And now we’ve introduced the concept of beauty, moving closer to art and away from cold fact. The introduction of beauty often (but not always) leads to less utility — there can be a trade-off. While beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses were not that practical — they notoriously leaked. And while scientific research is performed in the lab, and engineering is often performed in typical office spaces, design is performed in boutiques or studios by the creative class. Even if it looks like an office, it’s a studio (style matters, especially to designers). And if design is the injection of art into engineering, then the studio element is even more appropriate. So is the art metaphor a step too far? I would argue it is not. The iPod (a beautiful piece of design) is in MoMA, after all — Windows 95 (a feat of software engineering) is not.
So now we finally get to art. Asking “what is art” is in itself a loaded question. Art is often beautiful, but it’s more than that. Art in itself is a question, as Duchamp taught us. It can be beautiful, but it also encompasses a thought and provokes a question. The best art, in my opinion, does both — it is a beautiful thought. Art is pure in the sense that it (unlike science, which encompasses a different kind of purity) does not rely on facts — it’s emotional, it wants to make you feel. We use words like imagination, beauty, and originality to describe art and how it expresses ideas and feelings, and in this way, art is subjective, it cannot be “proven.” But like science, there is an element of peer review to art — the auctions, the owners, the provenance, the museums, all linking to each other. Also a form of linking, artists build upon each other’s work, sometimes approaching what some may deem as copying or theft. But in the art world, it is called “appropriation,” though perhaps it’s merely a matter of semantics; after all, as Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” In any event, like science, art thus exists as a web, created by individuals in coffee shops and studios, linking and relinking across geography and time.
Art is not a product — it has no utility in our everyday world — it stands on its own without a “use.” In fact, many artists claim that making functional or commercial products is in fact selling out. Yet it has value, both aesthetically and monetarily. Indeed, the best art sells for far more than any individually designed product or any piece of technology. Most months, hundreds of millions of dollars of art exchange hands through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
And while it may seem that we’ve traveled far from science to get to art, we’ve ended up back at the beginning. We’ve traveled a circle, not a line, converging at both scientist and artist. The best science is beautiful (not in appearance but in meaning, in purpose, in its very exploration), and the best art tells us something about the world around us. They ask the same question — what makes us human — they just use different tools. The scientist’s approach is quite literal — atoms, molecules, and the big bang — while the artist invokes in us wonder and curiosity and gives us a sense of our commonality. While these may at first seem fundamentally different, we’re learning that much of art, in seeking to answer the question of what makes us human, can be explained by evolution.
We live each day surrounded by engineering and design, by products and buildings that we can see and touch, but we don’t contemplate or explore science or art nearly enough. We may visit museums occasionally but not often; we rarely encounter/recognize hard science in our daily lives. This, to me, is unfortunate, because the big, interesting questions are at the beginning and the end; the incremental is in the middle:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding