Science versus Art: The Ultimate Smackdown! (Or is it?)


Image thanks to

I’m so pleased to have Amber Keyser here today. In celebration of Marie Curie’s birthday, Amber agreed to say a few words about science and art. Plus, she’s giving away a hardcover copy of her newest book! Here’s Amber!

The more I look at this image, the madder I get! There’s poor old Science in monochome while Art is brilliantly colored. Art gets the word FUN in bright swirly letters. Science gets ANALYTIC. The obvious conclusion? Science = boring. And the two have nothing in common.

All my life I’ve heard this dichotomy of science versus art and left brain versus right brain. Worse are the messages that boys excel in science while girls are artistic. It’s like there is some gladiator fight to the death between science and art. Pick your side. Pick your weapon. It ends in blood.

I am both a scientist AND an artist. In my experience, the two disciplines are not separate at all. In fact, at their core, they are the SAME. Whether I am doing science or writing a book, I am striving to understand how the world works.

How the world works MATTERS!

From the beginning of human history, we have been trying to understand (and survive) the world around us. Perhaps the most uniquely human attribute is to ask questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Can I eat that plant? Does she love me? Can we live on Mars? Can we get along?

QUESTIONS are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All good science (and all good art) begins with a question. We (meaning we scientists and artists) gather as much information as we can: What have others learned about our question? What can I observe and measure and describe? How have others written or talked or danced about this question?

We use this information (dare I say, data) to make guesses about the truth. When I’m doing evolutionary biology, that guess is an hypothesis. Such an official sounding word. When I’m writing a book, that guess is about the emotional core of the book I am writing.

The next step is for us scientists and artists to get CREATIVE. We get free-flowing and swirly and brightly-colored because problem-solving requires innovative thinking. How are we going to grow food on Mars? What is the experimental design or technical advancement that will answer our questions and meet our goals? What is the artistic medium for us to address our subject? Achievement—whether in art or in science—requires out-of-the-box thinking.

It also requires WORK—elbow-grease, dedication, stick-to-it-ness—hour after hour we painstakingly collect data or write words or go to ballet rehearsals. You can’t make art or do science without many hours of effort. We make schedules and set goals. We carve out time. Writers call it butt-in-chair. But no matter the disciple, we do the hard work, day after day.

Scientists and artists FIND THE STORY. Since we are trying to understand how the world works, we have to make sense of what we discover, and that is what we call NARRATIVE. To share our discoveries with others, we have to find the thread that links everything together and tells a compelling story.

That is science.
That is art.

Long live science and long live art!

We won’t survive without them.


Amber J. Keyser is an evolutionary biologist-turned-author and former ballerina, who writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her young adult novel The Way Back from Broken (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015) is a heart-wrenching story of loss and survival. The V-Word (Beyond Words, 2016) is an anthology of personal essays by women about first time sexual experiences. She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series Quartz Creek Ranch (Darby Creek, 2017).

Her other books include the nonfiction title Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes (21st Century Books, 2015); a picture book, An Algonquin Heart Song: Paddle My Own Canoe (FOAP, 2007); two graphic novels about science, The Basics of Cell Life with Max Axiom (Capstone Press, 2010) and Decoding Genes with Max Axiom (Capstone Press, 2010) as well as a photo-illustrated nonfiction title, Anatomy of a Pandemic (Capstone Press, 2011).

For more information, visit Amber’s website at or on Twitter at @amberjkeyser.


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Is Bad Science Ever Okay?

Many of us fell in love with Sci-Fi stories before we were old enough to care about scientific accuracy. For some of us, the results were fantastic! (See Commander Hadfield’s tweet for the ultimate example!)

cmdr Hadfield SciFiTweet

From faster-than-light travel to alien races who speak English to wormholes that transport you without crushing you, anyone who enjoys Sci-Fi has probably engaged in the suspension of disbelief. Even in stories where authors go to great lengths to preserve accuracy, there are usually one or two “cheats” introduced, or sometimes writers engage in something I’ve heard affectionately called “handwavium” where major inaccuracies are glossed over with a wave of the hand. (I like to think of “handwavium” as a nod to both Harry Potter and STAR WARS, A New Hope. Think Hermione Granger uttering a spell while waving her hand like Obi Wan and you get the idea.)

So why do writers do this? I think that in most cases it’s in support of storytelling. Let’s start with an example from Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN and then look at an example from my Saving Mars series. By now many people have learned a bit of Mars trivia: Storms on Mars aren’t really like that. Maybe you already knew. Or maybe you learned this while watching THE MARTIAN in company with a friend who leaned over to whisper The Truth to you. Or perhaps you heard during an interview with Weir where he admitted he bent the truth when he posited winds on Mars with enough force to knock over something larger than, say, a leaf.

[Moderate Science Content, in case you’re interested in the “why” behind Mars’s gentle 150 kph winds:

A wind blowing at 150 kph on Mars will only have a force of around 2% what it would have on Earth. The atmosphere is thin on Mars resulting in much lower air density. Mars’s low air density in turn plays a role in keeping the winds tame. Imagine sweeping your hand through air as compared to sweeping your hand through water. It takes less force to sweep through air, right? This is because the air mass diverted by your hand as it sweeps through the air is much less than the water mass diverted by your hand in water; it takes less force to move the lesser mass of air. The same effect is even more extreme with the Martian atmosphere. On Mars the density is much lower and so even less mass is diverted by objects in the wind’s path, even at high speeds. So if you held your hand out of the window while driving fast on Mars, you would hardly feel the force.]

So why rewrite the laws of physics to tell the story of astronaut Mark Watney? Weir knew exactly what he was doing. And why. In a statement accompanying the movie’s release, Weir explained it like this: “In a man vs. nature story, I wanted nature to get the first punch in. The problem was I couldn’t find a plausible or realistic way for nature to cause the problem without kind of breaking the rules.” So Weir broke the rules for the sake of the story, because a man vs. nature story was inherently intriguing to him. Was it a good decision? Well, it only bothered me for about two minutes before I got sucked into one of the best stories I’ve ever re-read. 😉

Photo courtesy NASA

At the time I was writing the SAVING MARS series, new discoveries were coming in every month regarding the composition of Martian soil, atmosphere, polar caps, and so on. I read everything I could get my hands on and even had the great privilege of visiting NASA-Ames and NASA-Kennedy Space Center where I could ask questions in the pursuit of getting my science right. Some of this science I chose to use with accuracy. However, there is one glaring inconsistency between my Mars and the real Mars: my Mars has less water. Considerably less water.

Since I finished the series, even more exciting news about liquid, flowing water on Mars has come through, although it sounds like the flowing stuff has more dissolved salts than the Dead Sea! So did this trouble me? Well, probably less than it will trouble some readers. I really wanted to tell a desert story, where scarcity would impinge at all times. That story was, for me, inherently more interesting than a story where you can easily collect water, so I bent what we know about Mars to create that desert world.

Likewise, I employed “handwavium” with regards to the rebody program. The idea of transferring a person’s consciousness is certainly not original to my story—I’m pretty sure I ran into the concept watching Star Trek in the seventies. But I chose not to go into much detail as to how rebodying was accomplished because, for me, the “how” wasn’t nearly as interesting as the “why.” I was fascinated by the idea of a culture where this practice had become normalized to the point that your body was no longer something you owned.

I think that most writers of science fiction are comfortable bending the rules for the sake of the story they want to tell. So what do you think as a reader of Sci-Fi? When is it okay to tweak science? Comment through the rafflecopter below for a chance to win a signed paperback (US) or signable ebook (Int’l) of SAVING MARS.

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