Breaking the Barriers

At Harvard, the line between art and science begins to waver

Daniel N. Yue

Harvard thinkers see science in everyday life

In 1999, Antwerp was transformed into a series of laboratories and galleries. Throughout the Belgian city, scientists opened their doors to members of the public who were curious to see what they were working on. At the same time, Antwerp’s artists were also welcoming people into their studios and displaying numerous works of art. The citywide exhibition, entitled “Laboratorium,” curated by Barbara Vanderlinden and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and including Harvard physics professor Peter L. Galison among its artists, was intended to probe the ways art and science are interrelated by inviting the citizens of Antwerp to experience the interfaces between the two disciplines.

Despite the historically strong ties between the arts and the sciences—from Leonardo da Vinci, with his painstakingly rendered anatomical investigations to Albert Einstein, who was a gifted violinist—such projects are the exception and not the rule. Today, the two disciplines are conceived of as not only separate but diametrically opposed to each other. Such a caricature, which portrays science as essential but uncreative and art as humanistic but ultimately impractical, is overly simplistic and does not do justice to either discipline.

The divide is present at Harvard as well, perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the geography of the University: science and engineering labs sprawl north of Annenberg, while the Barker Center and most of Harvard’s art museums huddle together on a narrow strip of land between Quincy Street and Prescott Street. The first question after the obligatory name-dorm-hometown exchange a freshman is likely to be asked is, “Are you a science person or a humanities person?” It’s a loaded question, one that presumes that it is impossible to be both. And for people whose interests really do straddle the divide between the two, students and professors suggest, such a culture can puts pressure on individuals to focus on one side of their interests and shelve the others.

But here, as in Antwerp, academic innovators are pushing back against this either-or culture. A multiplying list of interdisciplinary courses questions the notion that science and art are irreconcilably separated. By creating classes that meld the two together, professors are challenging students to think critically about culture’s perceptions, blurring the boundaries and in some cases rejecting them altogether.


Among those bridging the gap are students who do not merely take an interdisciplinary elective, but who choose to concentrate in two “opposite” fields. Awais Hussain ’15 is such a student: a joint physics-philosophy concentrator, he says the two complement each other more than people might assume. “Philosophers actually love analyzing math and trying to figure out why math [has] this weird kind of position in terms of knowledge. One plus one is always two, no matter where you are on the planet, no matter where you are in the universe,” Hussain says. “Why is it so special in that sense?”

“[Philosopher] Bertrand Russell is a prime example of that – he basically redefined logic but he was an amazing mathematician,” Hussain adds. “I think it makes sense because in both subjects you have to think very clearly, very specifically, and focus very much on the small details that most people would arguably miss.”

Even the app Hussain is currently trying to launch comes with some philosophical aspects. The program, an intuitive calendar that allows you to log everything you do, is designed to make people more aware of time and break out of bad habits like procrastination. In Hussain’s opinion, people should acknowledge that time and money are both quantifiable assets that can be spent, wasted, and lost.

Like Hussain, Aisha K. Down ’14, a joint Physics-English concentrator and inactive Crimson editor, also sees a natural link between her two fields. “Physics and English: they’re a way of using language in order to get at truths which are much more underlying,” she says. Even though she’s hoping to write a fiction thesis, Down feels sure that her background in physics will have an enormous impact on her work. “Physics has made me a much better writer,” she says. “In a way, writing a story is more like solving a problem than other aspects of English because you have to make things logically follow, you have to create your own causality, and you have to sell it.”

Down expressed a great deal of frustration at the stereotypes and rivalry that persist between departments. “I don’t think that the end goal [of physics and English]—or the thing that drives them, which is a quest for a kind of truth—is different. I don’t think one has to be less rigorous or more creative or more practical than the other,” she says. “I think a lot of good thinking is killed off by attitudes that different departments have towards each other.”


Physics professor Peter S. Pershan is one member of the Harvard community attempting to present a picture of art and science unified. His freshman seminar, “You and Your Camera,” examines the science of photography, with topics ranging from quantum mechanics to how the eye works. The course also delves into photography’s history and asks students to try their hand at the art.

While he spends much of his time working with physics at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Pershan has always had an interest in photography. “It’s been a hobby of mine for many years,” he says. “I would describe myself as an old child, and I think most of my colleagues, especially in sciences, are. What do you do when you’re five years old? You play with toys, and that’s how you learn. I love playing, and photography is just part of that.”