Science and art go together like a horse and cart

Last month, I was one of many people enjoying the BAFTA awards ceremony. From the comfort of my sofa, I should add – I was not one of those lucky enough to be at the Royal Opera House. Had I been there, I have no doubt that a scientist like me would have been confined to the cheap seats far away from the stage, so it was just as well that I watching the show on BBC One, as I may not have noticed the intricate design on the reverse of the iconic BAFTA mask award. As the talented and charming Dame Helen Mirren spoke of her career on screen, I became fixated with a familiar symbol on the back of her award.

Dame Helen Mirren accepts her BAFTA award (via BBC)

Dame Helen Mirren accepts her BAFTA award (via BBC)

Behind the right eye of the mask is a classic simplified diagram representing an atom. A quick Google search and a couple of disproportionately excitable tweets led me to the BAFTA website and the history behind the design of this unmistakable award.

Close up of the reverse side of the BAFTA award (via BAFTA)

Close up of the reverse side of the BAFTA award (via BAFTA)

The mask award was designed by American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe in 1955, and the BAFTA website states that “the hollow reverse of the mask bears an electronic symbol around one eye and a screen symbol around the other, linking dramatic production and television technology”. Over 50 years ago, C. P. Snow gave a lecture in which he vocalised his concern over the fact that science and art were becoming two distinct cultures moving further away from one another. Surely 50 years on, in this very small and well-connected world in which we live, this cannot still be the case. So why was I surprised to see that symbol there?

As a scientist, I have often noticed that science and art are rarely linked, with one discipline often dismissing the other. This has always broken my heart. Thanks to my parents’ hard work and daily after-school ferrying around, I have been lucky enough to have been brought up with a diverse range of hobbies including music, dance and drama. As a scientist, I like to think that I can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the work I do, and that of my colleagues. Why is it that so many people still believe that you must choose between science or arts? The movie industry itself has its roots firmly anchored within historic scientific discoveries, from the invention of celluloid and its application as photographic film to the current computer graphic imaging technology that allows films such as Gravity to be made.

Small steps are being taken to reunite the ‘two cultures’, with my alma mater UCL now awarding BASc degrees, and events such as my current employer Imperial College’s monthly Fringe events. There is now a greater awareness of careers that allow for, and indeed increasingly require, a combination of these two strands, although continued extensive outreach work is required to reach school age students and open their eyes to this new world where they are not forced to choose between science and art.

Tonight, all eyes are on Hollywood, Los Angeles, where the 86th Academy Awards, or the Oscars, are to be held. While I am torn between the utterly brilliant, harrowing and moving 12 Years a Slave and the beautifully shot, science-flavoured Gravity for Best Picture, I can relax knowing that some equally important awards have already been handed out. The Oscars’ website revealed a whole section dedicated to Science and Technology, and the news that a separate star-studded ceremony is held two weeks prior to the awards ceremony that we hear about, honouring those that have advanced film making through the use of science and technology. There are three levels of award available; Technical Achievement Awards, Scientific and Engineering Awards (my personal favourite, as a materials scientist and engineer!), and Academy Awards of Merit. It is great to see scientists and engineers being honoured in such a way, and I think that film and TV are a great example of how there is no such thing as two cultures. The two are inextricably linked, and that should be celebrated.

Purely by chance, I stumbled across this great project by film maker Lucia Helenka. With Minky Productions, she is making a film called STEM (which in my world stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, but is also presumably a pun on the subject matter) which is about love, life, science and plants engineered to include green fluorescent protein that makes them glow in the dark. If you are in a position to support this project or are even just curious, head over to their Indiegogo site, watch the excellent trailer, and if you like what you see throw a few pounds their way. Let’s keep science and art going together. See you at the screening!