What happens when you combine Science with Arts and Humanities?

This piece was inspired by a recent Sheffield Students blog article, “Science Vs Humanities”, which I enjoyed reading it because it made me reconsider the importance of Arts and Humanities, as compared to the Sciences.

For as much as I think some students and the public don’t see the point of arts and humanities degrees, many also don’t understand the importance of science and its students. That isn’t to say that the majority of the public don’t think science is important, it’s more that they maybe don’t fully appreciate how it affects their day-day life.

Things are looking up. Public awareness of and engagement with science has risen dramatically in recent years – which is brilliant. Yet improving public engagement with science is a tough process. In contrast, the public already readily interact with the arts and humanities – whether this is watching films, going to a gallery or the theatre, watching history documentaries, reading books, or visiting museums. So why not combine science with art or history, to give the public a fresh perspective on research, or to even inspire new research?!

The article that inspired this was called “Science Vs Humanities”, but the two don’t always have to be in competition, and what happens when the two are brought together is impressive and awesome. I have examples of both science-art and science-humanities collaborations, which I am going to share with you. Hopefully this will encourage you to not only reconsider the importance of science, and the arts and humanities, but also how important and interesting cross-disciplinary collaborations can be.

First, arts meets science

The Wellcome Trust is an organisation that funds a lot of crucial science research, and some very prestigious PhD positions. They are also massively involved in promoting science and art collaborations. It would take a long time to go into all of their work, but they specifically fund arts and science collaboration projects, have science imagery competitions (such as the Wellcome Image Awards) and generally promote the beauty of science.

I have written on my personal blog about the importance of social media in academia, especially for students in “Putting the ‘Media’ in ‘Academia’”. Recently, a brilliant science and art collaboration happened over 7 days on Twitter, using #SciArt. Science artists shared their work, some of which was inspired by science, with other work created using scientific materials. Then the awesome happened. Scientists started contributing microscopy images, pictures of bacterial and fungal colonies and a whole variety of other beautiful science images. The artists then used this inspiration, and got to work. I joined in, contributing this image of a fungal colony, which had naturally grown in different shaded concentric circles:

IMG_20150520_145022

This then inspired an artist on twitter to look into fungal colonies for inspiration, and produce this:

IMG_20150520_145203

You may say “Well what is the big deal?”. Well, the #SciArt week had thousands of participants, and countless more observers, all becoming interested in science through art, and that is a pretty effective way of increasing public engagement with science.

And now, history meets science

A recent announcement, popular in the media, was that scientists had used an Anglo-Saxon recipe to produce an antibiotic mixture, capable of combatting MRSA, a deadly bacteria that kills many people around the world. The work, carried out by microbiologists working at the University of Nottingham, was forged through one of the researcher’s interest in old English and old Nordic history. Upon attending a reading group hosted by the University of Nottingham’s Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, a conversation started about setting up a collaboration between the two (seemingly distant) fields, to investigate translating ancient texts to look at ancient remedies.

As you hopefully have heard (through countless TV, radio, and press stories), antibiotic resistance is a huge issue that is currently facing the world. Some drugs that have been used to save lives in the past are becoming less and less useful. We risk running out of antibiotics, and going back to the ‘Dark Ages’ of medicine, where even a routine operation by today’s standards will become very dangerous. The Nottingham researchers’ answer to this? Go back to the Dark Ages and find a new (but old) cure, for MRSA – one of the most widespread and deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In collaboration with the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, an ancient text was deciphered, describing a remedy for styes – those little sore lumps you get on your eyelids. These are most commonly caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA is an antibiotic resistant version of this), so it was hoped that this cure would be able to tackle MRSA. As announced in the news on March 30th, the new (old) cure appears to be able to reduce numbers of MRSA bacteria, which is really brilliant news!

Antibiotic resistance is just one of many issues facing us, which are tirelessly being tackled by scientists around the world. Research into new antibiotics has been slow in the last 20 years, and now, a collaboration between science and the humanities has possibly revealed a new antibiotic for one of the deadliest antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Whether it is just increasing public interest/awareness of Science, or actively contributing to tackling major issues facing humanity, collaborations between Science and both the Humanities and Arts can have impressive results.

Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s