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ARTSCIENCE: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation

by David Edwards
Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2008
194 pp. Trade: $19.95
ISBN: 9-780-67402625-4.

Reviewed by David G. Stork
Chief Scientist, Ricoh Innovations
Consulting Professor, Stanford University


The problems with this slim volume start with its title. Edwards, whose primary job is researching drug delivery systems at Harvard, introduces "ARTSCIENCE," but the term means little more than scholarship, creativity, and invention in which the creator exploits the rigor, repeatability, and search for truth of science as well as the informal playfulness, non-repeatability, and search for interpretation of traditional arts. This is a caricature of both science and art, of course, as some "pure" science research is deeply playful and some "pure" artistic creation is deeply analytic, a point that Edwards first recognizes halfway through writing the book. Such interdisciplinary work is very old indeed and readers will wonder whether Edwards is saying anything novel when he refers to Jan van Eyck's invention (actually, refinement and exploration) of oil paints at the beginning of the 15th century as "artscience"? Or to x-ray imaging of a Rubens painting, which reveals its underdrawings and pentimenti and thereby enrich our understanding of the work, likewise as "artscience." (The practice of imaging of paintings with x-rays is nearly as old as x-ray imaging itself.) There are numerous other such examples.

The second problem is with the subtitle. There is little if anything "post-Google" in the book: nearly nothing on the internet, on Google, and internet search and creation, on mash-ups, or on innumerable other topics to which the subtitle alludes. Nor, for that matter, is there any special focus on the younger "post-Google GENERATION."

The lion's share of the book consists of episodes or anecdotes in which a scientist or artist gets some benefit by dipping a toe into the "other" discipline, for instance in gaining insight on a scientific problem by beholding a work of art or inspiration for new compositional methods by reading about science. Most of these anecdotes are somewhat arbitrary and less than compelling because they are based heavily on Edwards' acquaintances in Cambridge and Paris. We learn of the engineer who is chosen to lead the Louvre's conservation science department (decades after similar departments were thriving at other museums), of a chemist who gets a technical insight by looking at a painting, a pianist/composer who is so intrigued by chaotic transformations that she studies math and engineering in order to derive new ways to compose musical variations, a researcher who is also an expert skier, a health worker who considers her photographs not as art but instead documentary evidence about the AIDS epidemic, a medical doctor with a passion for photography, a scientist with a passion for cello. Such anecdotes are hardly news to readers of Leonardo, each of whom likely is–and surely must know–dozens of such people. Incidentally, "passion" and its cognates are the most overused words in this book but because Edwards explains so little of the depths of the cross-disciplinary ideas in each anecdote, readers are unlikely to experience such passion themselves, or have their interests much piqued.

Toward the end of the book, Edwards lists a few vague guidelines or principles that he believes stem from these anecdotes: Incorporating both science and art can accelerate the adoption of ideas. Process matters more than results. Results are never bad. Some institutions have barriers between the art and science worlds that might profitably be reduced. And so on. Because so much that went before is described in inadequate detail, and that whole sections bear little if any relevance to these principles, and that the principles are so vague themselves, readers will find them obvious or not compelling. This book will change few minds. Nevertheless, Edwards is trying to put his ideas into practice a Le Laboratoire, an interdisciplinary center in Paris, but it is surely too early to judge its possible successes. Perhaps someday he can write a deep account of the lessons learned from this experiment.

In the meantime, readers should stick to the best books in the large literature on creativity in science, technology and the arts, such as Tom Kelly's The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO and The ten faces of innovation: IDEO's strategies for defeating the devil's advocate, or Stewart Brand's The Media Lab, where detailed examples of creative interdisciplinary work and the organizational structures that support it make the concepts more real and convincing and where the link from such interdisciplinary work to the scholarly, artistic and business successes are clear.



Updated 1st April 2008

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