Cover story

What Leonardo Knew

By Jeffrey P. Haney

The Goddess of Practical Inspiration is smiling on Ed Groff.

To the refrains of a wailing chanteuse or a beat of African drums, pulsating bodies discover the art of choreographed science under the watch of the University of Utah modern dance professor.

Technique, he tells his students, is vital to a dancer’s performance: it’s crucial to concentrate on sweat-honed skills, the scholarly mechanics of movement, and how feelings are emoted to audiences through a simple flick of a wrist.

“It’s the marriage of intuition and intellect,” he says.

“My belief is that movement training isn’t perceived as a needed discipline. Yet so much of our lives relies on movement. It is taken for granted,” he says. “Technique is the teasing apart of the ingredients of movement.”

The perfection of technique is the modern-day legacy of Techne, the mythological goddess. She was the heavenly inspiration of artists and scientists in classical Greece. It’s her name from which the word “technique” was derived, as well as the Greek verb, “tikein,” which means to create.

Through her, the Greeks believed the arts and sciences were celestially connected to convey to mortals how the world works. Even today, many scholars have converted to the academic posture that the two seemingly distant disciplines are bound by the thrill of exposing the world as it was never seen before.

“Einstein’s space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh’s sky,” concurs author Arthur Koestler. “The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself.”

Groff weaves art and science when he urges his students to know their bodies as well as the dances they perform. He is a student of motion analysis, which is a scientific investigation of how the body moves.

“A dancer who does not kinesthetically understand the force vector in landing from a leap will not be a dancer for long. Sooner or later the stumbling falls will end the career,” agrees Utah dance professor Sally Sevey Fitt in her book, Dance Kinesiology. Many dance teachers in the past have largely ignored the science of human motion, believing art and science are separate domains, she writes in the book.

“The fire and the passion for the art form can be supported and attained by the application of the science of motion. Just as the right and left hemispheres of the brain work together in processing information, so the science and the art of motion must merge to produce safety and excellence in dance,” Fitt argues.

Some dance students may not see it at first, but scientific theories are relevant to their professions, says Mary McDonald, a program manager at the Center for Integrated Science Education. “They need to know more than just how to dance.”

For example, she says, very few bodies are symmetrically perfect. Dancers learn, by the study of kinesis, how to correct on stage what nature suppressed.

McDonald thrives on such concepts. Her job promotes science-related learning on campus and in the community. Science is easier to learn when ideas are integrated with other disciplines, she says.

“It’s not like we exist in a world that is not inter-related. Things just don’t exist in isolation,” she says. “How you get great discoveries in science is how you get great art. The step-by-step creative process, I guess you can say, is where it all comes together.”

McDonald ticks off a list of common, everyday couplings of art and science: A painter is a chemist mixing oils for a portrait, an architect’s aesthetics are grounded in mathematics, and a physician assumes a sculptor’s role in casting a cast for a twisted, broken body. Still, the meshing of disciplines occurs infrequently in the teaching environment.

“This campus is so segregated,” she says, pausing a moment to gaze out of her office window in the Joseph Merrill Engineering Building on the north sides of campus.

“Art disciplines are on one side of the campus, and sciences are on the other,” she says, motioning southernly, in the direction of studios for drama and dance. “It’s so unfortunate.”

Yet there are various efforts among faculty to break down those geographic barriers.

Bob Olpin BS’63 saw the need to reach beyond the commonplace public role of the “fine arts.”

“I’m really rather bored with the thinking that the fine arts are only paintings, dances, and sculptures,” says the former Fine Arts dean. “Art can be computer graphics, architecture, surgery – anything that has impact. Art is a term we use for the best stuff that humankind does.”

Olpin pushed for technological advancements and training for fine-arts students and professors during his 10-year tenure as the top administrator of the college. The art history buff returned to the classroom this year (Continuum, Summer 1997). As dean, he worked to bridge the gap between art-science education.

With other Utah faculty, he helped explore the idea of building an interactive art/science center in downtown Salt Lake City. Proponents of the project are still seeking support and funding. Leonardo on Wheels, a traveling science-education program housed in Research Park, is a remnant of that effort.

“It wasn’t funded because it was a stretch. People find it easier for the art and humanities to be working together,” he says. “(But) it was a concept of integration as opposed to compartmentalization.”

Olpin knows his ideas don’t exactly curry favor with a few in the “hard” sciences. “With some, it is almost against the law to say that physics is an art,” he says.

There are, undoubtedly, countless definitions of both “art” and “science.” The description of the exact connecting points can be equally vague, and varies from hobbyist to scholar.

But both disciplines, many scholars have agreed, search for new ideas and patterns in nature to unmask previously unseen perspective and relationships, whether by numbers, shapes, colors, words, light, sound, or motion.

“Although ‘pure’ science and art may seem to be a small part of the overall University, they, together with humanities and the social sciences, are the basis of much of our knowledge,” teaches professor Joe Andrade, whose KULC Channel 9 telecourse “Science Without Walls” features a segment titled “The World of Science-The World of Art.”

Andrade, former dean of the College of Engineering, works with McDonald as director of the integrated science-education center. He says the very concepts that art is based on – light, color, and motion – also are branches of physics.

“That’s why these basic subjects are such a key and vital part of undergraduate college or university education,” he says.

“Science helps us to understand, to make sense, of the world in which we live. It helps us to understand ourselves. So does art,” Andrade says. “Scientists ask questions, design experiments, make observations, and try to develop answers or understanding of the questions asked. So do artists.”

It’s hard to break a stereotype, however. Scientists and artists, many believe, have as much in common as Dilbert and Salvador Dali.

Engineers, represented in the popular comic strip, are thought of as “left-brained,” meaning they are unemotional, mathematical, exact, and logical. Artists, such as the Spanish painter, have the reputation as being “right-brained,” or creative, spontaneous – even impractical.

“Not quite,” says Andrade, who is driven to debunk the myth. “Scientists and engineers are also very creative – generally the more creative, the more mathematical, logical, and highly experimental.”

Artists often begin a work with a creative vision, undoubtedly stemming from the right hemisphere of the brain, which governs creativity. But the act itself of drawing, painting or composing is a step-by-step process requiring memorizing patterns of logical thought processed by the left hemisphere, the side of physics. Conversely, just as artistry is augmented by input from the left-brain hemisphere sequence, scientific thought depends upon right-sided inspiration, says author Leonard Shlain. The surgeon was invited to speak to students and faculty at Utah about his book, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, two years ago.

Olpin notes that a surgeon’s work is an excellent example of a practice that embodies both artistic and scientific principles. “Surgeons obviously are scientists and artists,” he says. “They work with the whole human being; from the tangible to the intangible.”

Shlain observes that some of the most stunning examples of modern art coincided with advancements in scientific thought at the turn of the twentieth century. Not-so-coincidently, he notes, two thought-changing branches of physics emerged at the same time: relativity and quantum theory.

“Our present world full of computers, lasers, space probes, transistors, and nuclear energy attests to the great power of prediction implicit in these two theories ... The new physics presently rests like a pea under the collective mattress of humankind, disturbing tranquil sleep just enough to begin to change how people think about the world. Art was there to sound the clarion warning of the technostress to come,” Shlain writes.

The key, it appears, is to master logic stemming from both sides of the brain.

When both sides work in tandem, genius is born. Witness Leonardo daVinci.

Leonardo, from the Italian hamlet Vinci, is often regarded as the first student of this school of artistic thought embracing anatomy, mathematics, and logic to create new perspectives on human and spiritual life.

da Vinci is renowned worldwide for his rendering of a wryly smiling woman named “Mona Lisa.” His vision of Jesus Christ breaking bread with his disciples at “The Last Supper” is regarded a masterpiece.

But how many know the revered Renaissance Man also reputedly invented the machine that makes gold sequins, the staple of glittering gowns donned 500 years later by Las Vegas kick-line chorus girls?

Born in 1452, da Vinci wasn’t just a painter whose talents were derived solely from a creative twinkle in his eye and a knack for mixing colors. He is considered a pioneer in the studies of anatomy, geology, mathematics, architecture, and engineering

Tracy Petersen BS’72 MFA’76 PhD’80, a U professor who teaches music and computer science applications, says his brightest pupils don’t fight the impulses from both sides of the brain, but employ them in exploring new forms of creative expressions.

“Some of my best music students are involved heavily in mathematics,” says the trained violinist and mathematician. “Composition involves both sides of the brain at the same time. A lot of people struggle with that. I see it in my students.”

Petersen, whose father also was an accomplished musician, believes some of his musical and mathematical talent was aided by early exposure to measures, chords and extended riffs.

Results of scientific research may prove the claim that early training in the arts develops intellectual skills vital to later scientific endeavors.

For example, researchers from the University of California at Irvine and University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh found that music lessons – specifically piano instruction – enhance a child’s abstract reasoning skills, which are necessary for learning math and science.

A study of Standard Aptitude Tests by a college board also showed that students who enrolled in arts-based classes four or more years scored 59 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math portions of the SAT than students who did not take music or art.

Petersen would like to see more halls of higher education embrace the idea of inter-disciplinary instruction, if only to dispel notions that universities are bastions of structured indoctrination.

“I’d like to see [art and science education] under one common roof. We could put the connection with as many disciplines as possible,” he says. “What happens when you do that, is you get students from art and computer science sitting side by side – and good stuff starts to rub off.”

Steps have already been taken at the U to encourage such educational mixing and matching. Cognitive couplings go one high-tech step beyond the math student looking at Picasso’s cubist aesthetic and technique as a veritable textbook of geometrical study. Like modernists with their new perception of the visible world, Robert McDermott’s PhD’80 art students are learning to create expository animations with computers, and to create meaningful visuals. Work done by his students last year won a regional Emmy. Zoya Maslak’s graphic art is used to illustrate biological research. It appeared on the cover of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Visualization attempts to transform research data into colorful, meaningful pictures. While the content is practical information, the outcome also can be fit for an art gallery and appreciated without understanding the detail.

“We work with researchers to hear the concept behind what they are trying to do. We try to achieve visual solutions to visual and spatial problems, work that is normally associated with art departments,” says the staff scientist for visualization at the U Center for High-Performance Computing.

Societal definitions have limited what is considered art to anything visual that doesn’t have a function, McDermott says. In addition, as early as elementary school, students learn the two disciplines in compartmentalized classes.

McDermott’s own math professors chided him for taking art classes. And his sculpting instructors questioned his decision to spend less time honing his art to crack math texts.

“One of the things I knew is that they were both wrong,” he says. “But when I ask science students if they’ve taken drawing classes they look at me like I’m nuts.”

Plans to integrate art-science classes are hard to realize. They can become possible when individuals see the connection between the two disciplines, and the benefits that result from an expanded definition of cultural literacy. That’s when resources will become available, he says. Yet, it is difficult to imagine projects jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts anytime soon.

Society approves of occupations based in mathematics and engineering more highly than artistic endeavors, McDermott says. Acutely aware of this condition, children develop either/or mentalities about science and art. This discourages investigating liminal connections between them.

But at academic institutions like the U, faculty and students are starting to overcome a reticence to seek a balance. Artists help computer scientists write programs and mathematicians, scientists, and engineers are encouraged to consult with artists, architects, or designers when they are going to describe their work in pictures. Through collaboration, each group becomes more accepting of the other’s motivations. There is a growing appreciation for the capacity that computers have to help students create an almost infinite variety of visual projects.

Heretofore, the printed word has been the preeminent form of conveying information. McDermott envisions that notion changing radically as technology makes academic headway. Computer graphics has the potential to establish the picture as a stable form of information and knowledge. The University’s pioneering and historical contributions to the field of computer graphics is one reason for its growing acceptance among faculty and students.

Similar opportunities to explore hybrid connections are helping blur other distinctions among disciplines. Enabling students to explore, reflect, and act on this alchemy of science and art exemplifies the creativity within the University’s domain.

– Jeffrey P. Haney is a writer with the University News Service. He worked previously for the Standard-Examiner, Deseret News, and Weber State University’s Office of Public Communications.

Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association