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My Left-Field Lesson - Sparks fly when art and science interact

There's real chemistry between the disciplines, as one school found

There's real chemistry between the disciplines, as one school found

Over the past 20 years, I have got to know Michael Hoch relatively well. Michael works on the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, Switzerland, and I've been lucky enough over those two decades to regularly take students to the enormous scientific playground where he works.

The interesting thing about Michael is that, as well as being a nuclear scientist, he is also a keen photographer. For some, this combination seems incongruous: can a human brain be both scientific and creative? For many students, this seems impossible. That's why I love introducing them to Michael.

Last year, my school, City of London School, wanted to emphasise the link between art and science even further. Michael had always wanted to display some of his photographs in London, so we arranged for this to take place at our school as part of a wider science and art festival. It would take the theme of "dialogues in art and science" - a truly cross-curricular celebration of two apparently different disciplines.

Separation of the two departments has generally been encouraged at schools for practical reasons, and this specialisation no doubt delivers efficient teaching. But, as we began to plan our event, we realised there was much to gain by exploring the art-science link.

Life is rich in the variety of ways in which we interpret, communicate, argue and predict, and we wanted to encourage our students to have a broad vision of these skills. For example, the friendship between late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman and artist Jirayr Zorthian showed differences in outlook because the two disagreed on basic things. Zorthian could never understand why Feynman was compelled to pull things of beauty apart and analyse them, because he thought the very act of analysis destroyed that beauty. Feynman felt differently, arguing that analysis only added to aesthetic appreciation, thereby enhancing beauty, never destroying it. It was with such disagreements in mind that we decided to explore the common ground between art and science, and to have some fun in the process.

Four sixth-formers joined three members of staff - one scientist, one artist and one philosopher - on a committee to organise the festival. One week of focused activity on the topic was planned, with lunchtime lectures on three of the days and a final evening lecture and a reception on the Friday. The lectures explored issues such as "What is the right space for art and science to collide?" and "My iPod just had a great idea".

In addition, students created posters featuring philosophical questions and we held a month-long art exhibition exploring scientific themes, showing the work of professional artists and of students.

As part of the festival, sixth-formers recorded an interview with a scientist (Daniel Glaser, director of the Science Gallery at King's College London), an artist (Melanie Jackson) and a philosopher (AC Grayling). The lectures were also filmed and, in due course, all the footage will be put on the event's web page as a resource for others.

We called the event Unseen Dimensions: Dialogues in Art and Science. Passion and creativity became the overall theme - attributes shown across the festival by staff and students alike. The event really broadened how artists thought of science and how scientists thought of art. And, hopefully, the lesson that the two disciplines can work together will be a lasting one.

Hugh Jones is head of science at City of London School.

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