Dissolving the science/arts divide

 A new 3D printing technique allows solid objects to be created from a pool of goo within minutes – working up to 100 times faster than current models. Sound like science fiction? Well that may be because the scientists behind the technology have revealed that the idea was inspired by a scene from the film Terminator 2 in which a killer robot emerges from a puddle of liquid. 

The technology, developed by scientists at the University of North Carolina, uses a combination of light projections, which solidify the liquid, and oxygen, which inhibits solidification, to create the desired shape. The technology is set to revolutionise 3D printing, being the first technique which could realistically compete with the traditional manufacturing process, and it all started with an abstract idea in the mind of a filmmaker. 

Investigating further, I discovered that a numb e r of technologies were imagined in the arts years before science made them a reality. From the Star Trek communicator which inspired the first mobile phones to the novel The World Set Free which inspired the world’s first nuclear chain reactor, the examples are endless. Most excitingly, for Harry Potter fans at least, scientists are currently investigating how metamaterials can be used to bend light around objects – opening up the possibility of a real life invisibility cloak. 

These metamaterials are artificially engineered to interact with electromagnetic waves in ways that natural materials cannot; leading to bizarre optical properties including the ability to make objects appear invisible. Although it probably won’t exist in the immediate future, applications of the research include the use of such materials to aid complex surgery by being able to ‘see through’ organs, and the idea of active camouflage for military use. Without invisibility devices being described in fictional works such as Star Trek and Harry Potter, this branch of research might not even exist. 

Of course this is by no means a one way process. Scientific advancements and individuals are being given increasing coverage in the arts with recent films such as The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything offering people a glimpse into scientific advancements past and present and the lives of the scientists behind them. In fact, this represents a wider change in the way that science is presented to the general population. A century ago, newspapers didn’t even feature science or health sections and as far back as 50 years ago scientists who engaged with public communication were seen as “second-class scientists, doing a lower form of work”, according to Declan Fahy, author of The New Celebrity Scientists. With popular science at its peak, books, articles, television programmes and radio shows are all written and broadcasted with the aim of engaging the public by making science clear, interesting and relatable. After all, it’s our public taxes which fund the majority of scientific research and the public who will be affected by its progress. Whether or not you think it is good, science has now infiltrated the arts and media in an unprecedented manner. 

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The blockbuster Interstellar is perhaps one of the best examples of a successful interplay between the arts and science; the film’s premise was motivated by space travel, and contributed to our knowledge of black holes. The special effects team fed pages of equations modelling black holes into their rendering software, creating what are thought to be the most accurate images of a black hole to date. Although some relativistic effects were ultimately removed from the film in order to keep it symmetrical and more aesthetically pleasing, the original images have already been used in two scientific papers. 

Even though we may not be able to agree on whether 9ams or essay crises are worse, the arts and science divide is not all that significant. Not just that, but the separation of the two could endanger both fields – taking away big ideas from science and exciting concepts from the arts. In the words of Jules Verne, the French writer who has been credited with first envisioning air and underwater travel, “Anything that one man can imagine, another can make possible”.