STEM? No, STEAM!

A friend of mine tweeted last night about documentary programming on the BBC, arguing that there shouldn’t be competition between the arts and sciences, there should be plenty of room for both.  This reminded me that this post was sitting in draft and that I should get it finished!

The Leader in the New Scientist a couple of weeks ago (4 March edition) spoke about the need for scientists to “flex their imagination”.  It reminds us that science is, or should be, a creative discipline, albeit one based on hard evidence.  Collection and analysis of data enables science to make slow and steady progress (nothing wrong with that) and it is doing so faster than ever before – the number of working scientists are doubling every 18 years.  Great, earthshaking, leaps however take something more.  Specifically they take creativity and imagination.

The issue had an article about ideas on the edge of scientific discovery, like questioning whether the speed of light is actually what we think it is.  Now, for many, this sort of theorising is analogous to medieval theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead but we don’t know where such thinking will take us.  When quantum mechanics came about in the early 20th century it was exactly this sort of theorising but now insights from it are generating practical applications in computing and beyond (see The Economist, 6 March 2017).

Around the same time as the New Scientist article, I was at a seminar on the future of work.  Among the many insights I got from this was a move to STEAM as being the key skill area for the future.  This is the familiar STEM with the addition of art and design (STEADM isn’t as good an acronym!).  As someone who has studied across both science and humanities faculties in my time, I found this interesting so I did a bit of online research afterwards and came across the “STEM to STEAM” movement in the USA, led by the Rhodes Island School of Design.  Really worth checking them out.

Of course, the process of integrating the arts and sciences is, in fact, a re-integration.  Prior to the middle of the 19th century the two were practically inseparable and, during the enlightenment, educated people would as readily go to a lecture about the latest scientific discovery as they would about philosophy.  By 1959, and CP Snow’s famous book The Two Cultures, the arts and sciences (the two cultures of the title) were distinct intellectual traditions.  Worse, in the UK there was a class element to the divide which made it even more stark.  In general, the ‘uppers’ would do classics and the ‘lowers’ would do science.  Where ‘uppers’ did do science it was of the cerebral theoretical sort, never anything so blue collar as engineering for example.

The divide has become so stark as to become the Montagues and Capulets of intellectual life.  Arts people deride science people as over-literal automatons (what’s the difference between an English student and an engineering student?  When the lecturer says good morning, the English student says good morning, the engineer writes it down).  The science people deride the arts as being useless (what’s the most common question asked by a philosophy graduate?  Do you want fries with that?).

It is all a pile of nonsense.  The arts and sciences are intimately linked.  Brilliant minds in biology can tell us how to manipulate genes but it takes brilliant minds in ethics to determine if we should.  Nobel Laureates in the sciences are seventeen (yes, 17!) times more likely than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be poets, and four times as likely to be musicians (source, Steven Ross Pomeroy).

So, let’s ditch the two cultures thinking, stop the back-and-forth denigration and embrace STEAM.

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