Not long ago, one of my favorite very bright young people gave up the opportunity to go to a prestigious math/science high school because they didn’t have an orchestra. Or much of a music program. While I suspect this young man will one day make a career in the sciences, life without music was just not something to be considered.
I thought of him as I recently reread Root-Bernstein et al.’s article, “Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members.” I’ll admit I’m especially fond of this article because the list of authors is even longer than the title and includes 14 names, along with a notation that makes me assume they are all students in Michigan State’s Honors College. What a great experience for the students!
In any case, the team of researchers used biographies, obituaries, and previous survey data to study the avocations of different “levels” of scientists. What they found will warm the hearts of arts advocates and others who believe in the value of diverse interests. Nobel laureates were much more likely to have arts or craft avocations than the (demonstrably very good) scientists who were members of the Royal Society or National Academy. They, in turn, were more likely to have art or craft hobbies than the more typical scientists in Sigma Xi or the general public. It seems, the more dramatic and original the scientific contributions scientists made, the more likely they were to engage in arts activities for fun. Even Einstein played the violin.
Of course, as any beginning research student can tell you, just because two things are related one cannot assume one causes the other. But still. The article makes interesting hypotheses about possible causes and mechanisms of the relationship between scientific achievement/creativity and diverse interests. There is much there yet to be investigated. But as we think about what this study may mean for young people, at minimum it might suggest that my young friend was wise. In these days of high-stakes academic (translate: test) focus in schools, arts programs have taken a beating. It can be tempting to think that the more time spent on academic preparation the better. Who has time to tinker in the garage, play the viola, or make a mosaic when there are science books to be read? The answer, it seems, is “The very best scientists do.”
If we hope to support creative young people, one of the many roles we need to play is guardian of interests, passions, hobbies and (dare I say it?) fun. Without them, as my young friend noted, life is much diminished. And with them, we may just end up with more creative science.
Root-Berstein, R. et al. (2008). Arts foster scientific success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members. Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, 1, 2. DO: 10.1891/1939-7054 1.2.51