STEM and the Arts: Why Choose?

The foundations of science rest on good artistry, just as good artistry depends on good science.

by Lynn Wang

Illustration by Charlotte Southall

A great deal of the way we talk about education and careers has to do with this implicit understanding that STEM and the arts—liberal and otherwise—are at odds with each other. You can hear it in the way your history teachers rail against your high school’s devotion to the arts, scornfully dubbed a “waste of resources.” Maybe you’re an art student who is amazing at what you do, but can’t fathom yourself sitting in another math class because x is just too hard to find. Or maybe you constantly have to listen to grumpy uncles who blame our generation’s unemployment on lazy millennials who all pick up English majors because they’re too stupid to hack (haha, get it?) an engineering or computer science degree.

Maybe it’s your classmates who reinforce the divide. It’s easy to spot in the way your engineering friends sneer at English majors, and vice versa. Or you’ve noticed how all your liberal arts-oriented peers on your semester abroad started to treat you differently when they found out you were a biochemistry major. The message are all the same: MATLAB doesn’t get along with Matisse, and that’s just the way it is.

I would simply say that these people don’t quite know their history. People tend to forget that Albert Einstein was also a passionate and skilled violinist. Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American film actress, was an inventor who developed spread spectrum and frequency-hopping technology during World War II to aid the Allied war effort; her work is still used to support Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth technologies. She was aided by an American avant-garde composer, George Antheil. John James Audubon, known for his famous bird paintings, was also an ornithologist. Alexander Borodin was a Russian Romantic-era composer who worked as a chemist to pay the bills and is noted for his co-discovery of the aldol reaction. History is littered with brilliant scientists who created beautiful art, and brilliant artists who made massive contributions to the body of scientific knowledge.

The foundations of science rest on good artistry, just as good artistry depends on good science. In the years before even the most primitive imaging equipment existed, scientific observations could only have been recorded by hand. Could Galen’s illustrations of the human body have been useful to our knowledge of anatomy had he not been a skilled artist? In that same vein, could digital painting and graphic design exist if it were not for the softwares and technologies developed by scientists and engineers? Even the planes of linear perspective are dictated by a fantastic, mathematical logic. Face it, folks: We’re shouting from opposite sides of a dichotomy that really doesn’t exist.

So if you find yourself struggling to choose between a life filled with science or a life filled with art, have no fear—you probably won’t have to choose. While it may not be realistic to expect to be published in Lancet by day and sing in the Met by night, it is freeing to accept that excellence in science and the arts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two depend on each other.  So go ahead. Sign up for those art classes you’ve always wanted to try. Try that math class one more time. Consider that cross-departmental major/minor or double major. Forget the naysayers— Da Vinci would be proud.

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