13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Tue February 26, 2013
Why Beyoncé Would Make An Excellent Scientist (Really)
There is a lot of discussion these days about the relationship between Science and Art. For some folks Art, in all its diverse forms, is a process having very little overlap with science. Art is about interpretation. Science is about facts — end of story. For others, both Art and Science are methods of inquiry. Each is quite different from the other, but both are investigations of ourselves and the world we inhabit. A third camp argues that both Art and Science create meaning by creating culture (Science contributing to technology, Art using those technologies). Which perspective is correct? What is the true relationship between Art and Science? If you ask me, Beyoncé is one person who can really offer some answers.
Yes, that Beyoncé; stay with me, here. Yes, the one with the hips. Sasha Fierce aka "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" aka Mrs. Jay-Z, etc. Beyoncé, I believe, can teach us all about at least one, essential point of contact between Art and Science.
So first of all I do have to admit that I have a thing for a certain genre of pop diva. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone are always there in my head. They are giants. Madonna counts as diva for my own generation. Jennifer Lopez comes later and now we have Beyoncé. I do have to say that I never got Destiny's Child. (Why, exactly, is it that I should "Say Your Name"?) But when my daughter turned me on to the video for "Irreplaceable" a few years ago, I was hooked.
Yes Beyoncé is ... um ... stunningly, painfully and divinely beautiful. But really, I swear, that's not it. Let's face it, every year a new busload of beautiful women magically appears on pop music's public stage. Some of them can even sing and dance really well. So beauty and native talent are not what make Beyoncé the embodiment of a vital, living connection between Art and Science. It's something rarer still.
If we were looking at a Venn diagram, the region of overlap between Art and Science would be labeled "excellence". It's the common trait that binds the two together. In both domains, what really matters is a discipline of vision and the unrelenting drive to get it right. And just because excellent science sometimes leads to answers that are correct in the "back of the book" sense of the word, that doesn't mean that Art and artists don't have their own meaning of "getting it right".
This weekend my sweetie and I watched Life is But A Dream, the HBO documentary that follows Beyoncé over a few years as she struggles to move forward in her creative and personal life (she breaks with her dad-manager, has a baby, etc.) What struck me most were the scenes of preparation: preparation for recording albums and preparation for big performances. What comes through clearly in the show is an artist who has a clear set of ideas (often about the role of women in culture) and who pays meticulous attention to detail in service to these ideas.
That, my friends, is where Art and Science meet: a clear set of ideas executed with meticulous attention to detail.
In Science excellence establishes itself through the quality of inquiry. You have some idea about, say, the links between meteors and mass extinctions. You begin with a framework for addressing that question, using the tools you have trained with over a lifetime. These could be forms of mathematical analysis, data-gathering techniques or the invention of new tools of observation. Throughout the entire process, the primary concern for a scientist is the integrity she brings to every step of the process. How unbiased will you be about your assumptions at the start of the work? How disciplined will you be in maintaining the strictest standards for data collection? Finally, how honest will you be about the reach of your conclusions?
Excellence in Science is defined by a rigor and an integrity that doesn't cut corners, that remains true to the original vision of the question at hand. It doesn't mean perfection. It does mean not letting go of the project until you are sure you can believe in it.
Sounds a lot like Beyoncé to me.