The love life of arts and science
I think part of what made Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.
– Founder of a tech-product company named after a fruit
June 10, 1939 was the first time Isaac Asimov sat down to write a Robot story. It was his first piece of fiction. It is the story of a robot nurse and a little girl and love and a prejudiced mother and a weak father and a broken heart and a tearful reunion. Science fiction was quite famous at the time and Asimov was the first person and the first writer to think of robots as ‘industrial products built by matter-of-fact engineers’, as he puts it. He continued writing such stories and the idea of – carefully built robots that assist humans – permeated his stories and it didn’t stop there. Almost all sci-fi writers took his path.
In 1942, he coined and used the term ‘Robotics’ for the study of robots in his story ‘Runaround’. He didn’t use any existing word but created one. In the same story, he listed ‘Three laws of robotics’ which were regarded as pioneering principles at the time. However, those principles were stretched across the length and breadth of AI and science later and were criticized for the naivety. Asimov admitted that he had no thought that robots would come into existence in his lifetime. He was formally trained in biochemistry but wrote some intriguing sci-fi stories. He was one of the original thinkers of his time who envisioned the future without inventing it. Asimov’s three laws:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
In the late 1950s, Joseph F. Engelberger, an American entrepreneur and physicist, founded a firm by the name Unimation, Inc., because he was so interested in robots and made their production his life work. But how did he become so interested in manufacturing robots when there was no such industry? According to his words, he grew interested in robots in 1940s when he was a physics-major undergraduate at Colombia University, reading the robot stories of his fellow Columbian Isaac Asimov. Later, Engelberg even invited Asimov to write the forward for his 1980 book ‘Robotics in Practice: Management and Application of Industrial Robots.’ Asimov, in all his stories, envisaged a world with robots that have built-in safety techniques and are employed to do specific jobs assigned by humans. It all came true.
To invent this future, it took a little over a decade, along with a biochemist’s wild thoughts and his art of writing, and a physicist’s courage to make it happen because he just believed in his fellow’s wild thoughts. They both scrapped the que sera sera mood of the post-world-war 2 scenario with sci-fi.
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On 24 January 1984, the Macintosh was unveiled to the world at an event in an auditorium, throwing the crowd into a frenzy. Too many hands and too many brains were involved in building the machine. There were too many cooks too but nothing was spoiled. This event took the founder and the firm to a higher celebrity orbit. It’s a thing of the past but it’s worth remembering that the seed for this heavily idolized machine was sown by someone else.
Jef Raskin is philosophical guy who could be both playful and ponderous, writes Walter Isaacson in the biography of Steve Jobs. He envisioned Macintosh, and even named it, to be a computer that has a graphical interface and available to everyone at a low price. Raskin had studied computer science, taught music and visual arts, conducted a chamber opera company, and organized guerrilla theatre. His 1967 doctoral thesis at U.C. San Diego stated that computers should have graphical interface rather than text-based interface. If we see his life, we find odd polarities in his tastes and likes. He was a computer scientist who taught fine arts.
Because of the fog of war in the then Silicon Valley, nobody noticed the radical diversity possessed by some companies and Raskin was a part of one such company. The counterculture movement inspired Apple’s culture. The company gathered a diverse group from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests and of course diverse capabilities. Jobs’ vision for his company’s future was vividly playing before everyone who worked for the firm. He justifies the possibility of a computer scientist being a musician or anything for that matter. Not only Raskin, a few others also had different interests and a few members of the Macintosh team didn’t come from a relevant educational background. Jobs was not an artist but he often left space around artistic souls to do something new, not fearing naivety. He blended his knowledge of the art of calligraphy and typography in the Mac with ease. This tinge of art around science is what defined as innovation. He says that if we want to live our life in a creative way, as an artist, we have to not look back too much and the more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of us, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, they go and hibernate somewhere and maybe later they re-emerge a little differently. His understanding of this sort of diversity at workplace and the ‘let’s-run-risks’ nature gave the firm a shot in the arm every now and then.
On 7 November, 2014, the movie ‘Interstellar’ had a worldwide release. Chris Nolan delivered an ambitious, mind-bending spectacle to the world and The Telegraph described him as both a rational puzzle-maker and a problem-solver. There is one person alongside Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, who steered this movie preventing scientific embarrassments. He was the physicist and researcher Kip Thorne, who was also the executive producer of this film.
While writing the film, the Nolan brothers spent a substantial amount of time in Caltech, where Kip Thorne had been working for a long time. His research on gravitational waves spanned decades by the time, beginning in the late 1960s. Chris Nolan’s English literature degree might have helped him write a racy plot, laced with the inspiration of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do not go gently’ poem, but Kip Thorne fed the script with some shapeshifting scientific principles that made the film a spectacular watch. While they were discussing the science, art and possibility of designing a black hole, which had never been done even by scientists, he collaborated with VFX experts to translate the equations he’d been sleeping on for decades, into a visual medium. In the process, Kip Thorne, along with his team, published two research papers on how they created a software to invent the image of a black hole and how accurate it turned out to be. It all paid off well and later it was proved that there is maximum possibility that the black holes, which his team had designed, are close to the real ones.
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Excepting Kip Thorne, none of the team members knew anything about physics, leaving out what they’d learnt in school. None of them had formal education in such science but they somehow pulled it off with accuracy. In 2017, he won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics for his remarkable research on gravitational waves.
These are not the only instances where the intersection of art and science created a bang. This same point of intersection may have inspired the author Mary Shelly to predict about organ transplantation in her 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein’. She didn’t attend a medical school. All these seem borderline-surreal but they came true, not by accident but maybe by design.
Arts and science as disciplines were studied together in ancient times. Later, when each discipline branched out accumulating great amounts of knowledge, interdisciplinary knowledge became scarce. In Ancient Greece, there was a unity of arts, science, and philosophy. In the renaissance and pre-modern days, scientists were not only scientists but also artists, mathematicians and philosophers. Leonardo Da Vinci was known both for the mural painting ‘The Last Supper’ and topographic anatomy of human body. Samuel Morse invented the Telegraph and he was also a painter. The great German poet Goethe wrote on colour theory and also botany. The lead guitarist of the British rock band ‘Queen’ was an astrophysics researcher.
Earlier, one person had diverse interests and excelled in more than one. Today, not individuals but diverse teams are proving to be innovative in inimitable ways. Scientists and artists are coming together from all over the world to exchange perspectives. In this future our ancestors talked about, ideas are crossing paths. Neuroscientists are collaborating with theatre directors to work on auditory impulses, the Antarctica climate-change project has a painter in their team of researchers to document the images. Speech scientists are working with poets. Photographers and sleep scientists are studying human sleep patterns.
Scientists and artists have many opportunities to collaborate, from exploring philosophical questions to making products. However, no two collaborations follow the same recipe. The secret spice differs in each collaboration.