Antonio Benitez: Together, arts and science can fire the imagination

Professor TRevor Cox will lead a series of experiments investigating opera and the human voice in BBC Opera Passion, one of the events at the festival. Photo: University of Salford Professor Trevor Cox will lead a series of experiments investigating opera and the human voice in BBC Opera Passion, one of the events at the festival. Photo: University of Salford
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Science and art have much in common. Both disciplines ask big questions, both attract people who are inquisitive, both seek to inspire and provoke discussion about fascinating and relevant topics.

But for a long time, the two disciplines were treated as mutually incompatible. It’s an idea that was first propounded in the 1950s, when the great thinker Charles Percy Snow published his essay on the “two cultures”, and which we have struggled to demolish ever since.

Of course it wasn’t always so – some of the great Renaissance artworks that we celebrate are as much science as art, think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man or references to Galileo’s research in the works of Shakespeare.

But the specialisation of the 19th century led to a split between the two disciplines that kept them apart for years.

Now, finally, I would argue that science and art are no longer considered opposite disciplines. The perceived original binary division between the objectivity of the sciences and the subjectivity of the arts has been replaced by collaboration founded on correspondence and interdependence.

This perception may not be shared by the general public yet and more work to achieve this could be done by the national curriculum and early education.

In the last few years, there has been an important growth in interdisciplinary explorations and experiments, which has benefited practitioners and audiences in both fields.

Artists and scientists both share a desire to question the world around them. Their roles frequently overlap, giving us answers but also igniting curiosity about human existence. These collaborations challenge perceptions and increase the reach of both disciplines, often to new and under-represented audiences.

Scientific ideas inspire artists and the arts in turn are a powerful platform to showcase scientific knowledge. Think Connectome, Alistair Marriott’s 2014 work for the Royal Ballet that focuses on the connections between our brain cells, or Nick Payne’s acclaimed, quantum theory-inspired play Constellations.

Eleven years ago, a newly formed Manchester Science Festival started promoting multi-disciplinary work between science and art practitioners.

Since then, the Festival – produced by the Museum of Science and Industry – has been consolidated as one of the most important hubs for art and science collaborations.

It’s fantastic that Manchester is leading the world on this – as a city with a long history of innovation, it feels very apt.

The festival programme in 2017 reflects both our vision to be bold, creative and ambitious. This year, Manchester Science Festival puts science at the heart of culture, with exciting collaborations between practitioners of both fields resulting in theatre, poetry, music and dance.

From a show that uses data visualisation and environmental Sentinel satellites to form abstract light patterns, to pairing spoken-word artists with leading scientists for a science slam, and an Edinburgh Fringe veteran who sees the algebra in Beyonce’s song titles.

The creative processes shared by the sciences and the arts, and the collaborations between them, have a very powerful ability to ignite curiosity and inspire people from all ages to explore these fascinating disciplines.

Manchester Science Festival runs from October 19 to 29