By Joe Ferguson
The idea that two intellectual domains, the arts and sciences, can be bridged but never merged is an academic duality that is lost on me. This distinction was articulated by C.P. Snow in his now famous thesis The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). Snow lamented the loss of a common culture. He argued there were two cultures, scientists on one side and literary intellectuals on the other. Snow theorized a third mediating culture could act as an academic bridge and tie the two disparate worlds together.
My problem with this argument is the root of the supposed duality. The arts and sciences are derived from a common source--the mind--and as such, they are inherently human products. A bridge is meant for disparate things, not disciplines that cohabit the same space.
The idea that the machinations of art and science take place under one roof--i.e. the human skull--led me to venture outside of my normal art haunts to someplace new. I spent an evening at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The Exploratorium describes itself as "a museum of science, art, and human perception." Its purported mission is to "create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them." The space accomplishes its mission not through passive lectures or illustrations, but through physical and tactile engagement. In loose terms, the Exploratorium is an arcade for science geeks.
I know what you are probably thinking, but before you get in a huff and brand it more Magic Kingdom® than museum, be aware that there are dozens of SciArt exhibits. The museum also hosts an artist-in-residence program, presents science-inspired films and music events, and, importantly, on Thursday nights from 6-10 pm it’s for adults only.
Three-hundred thousand square feet of inside gallery space, and many more outside, are opened to those 18 years and older, and with a valid ID you can even buy drinks. All of those science projects you remember from high school and college have been expanded upon and are available for hands-on exploration--it’s a John Deweyian paradise.
As I made my way through the seemingly endless galleries, no one seemed concerned with intellectual dualisms. Otherwise mature adults were giggling, playing, and running between exhibits--and yes, you can still get into trouble for running. In other words, people were encountering science and art and having a good time.
There were too many SciArt pieces to mention, but a few in particular caught my eye:
Arthur Ganson’s Machine with Concrete seemed always surrounded by a photo-snapping crowd. A motor is connected to a small block of concrete by a series of gears. Through a series of reductions, the final gear embedded in concrete will turn once every 13.7 billion years.
Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge #72494 was mesmerizing. San Francisco is known for fog, but it hangs above us, winding its way through downtown skyscrapers. In this piece, the viewer is thrust into a human construction that, for a time, disappears in mist. If you want to see the Fog Bridge in action, click here for a video.
I also enjoyed Meara O’Reilly’s Chladni Singing. O’Reilly was inspired by the studies of German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni, who developed a technique to show modes of vibration on a mechanical surface. Using Chladni plates, the piece allows viewers to create geometric patterns in sand by singing into a microphone. Just to note, singing in tune is optional.
If you want to explore some of the other art at the Exploratorium click here.
The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15 in San Francisco and is open for adults only every Thursday evening from 6:00–10:00 p.m. After Dark events are held on the first Thursday evening of each month.