Art + Science = Inspiration

This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read “The Future of Creativity,” “Why Essays Are So Damn Boring,” “Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens,” “The Creativity Conceit,” and “Putting the Arts Back into the Arts.”

Just down the street from the Louvre in Paris is Le Laboratoire, a new “idea accelerator” where experimenters’ lab coats are more apt to bear traces of chocolate or paint than splotches of formaldehyde or hydrochloric acid.

The center brings together practitioners of art and science to collaborate on unconventional experiments like the Whif Bar, a tasty space-age treat combining espresso with a breath of aerosolized chocolate.

“The idea behind the Whif concept is to move beyond the fork and spoon to a higher level: inhaling food,” says Le Laboratoire founder David Edwards.

Le Laboratoire’s practitioners spend a lot of time exploring interdisciplinary ideas that might not otherwise see the light of day, such as the Bel-Air, a futuristic-looking “living filter” that purifies air by passing it through absorptive plants. “We value creators in business, culture, education, and society, but somehow we struggle to create institutional environments to welcome them,” Edwards writes in Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (Harvard University Press, 2008).

This problem starts early, right about the time each of us chooses between the mathletes and the drama club. We’re encouraged to take our place on one side of the art/science divide, a break that stifles creativity and innovation as we move through higher education and beyond. In his concise book, Edwards, a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard, shares the stories of people who have found ways to cross this barrier–artscientists, he calls them–and elegantly communicates the catalytic effect of their interdisciplinary leaps.

For Maurice Bernard, a longtime physicist who was hired to be director of the Research Laboratory of French Museums, the creative spark was forged literally the moment he stepped across that line.

“On entering the art museum,” Edwards writes, “he found an environment that surprised him. Naturally it led to fresh questions. This abrupt change in perspective, which leads highly trained and experienced minds to pose the sorts of original questions we normally leave to those just starting out on a career, is a hallmark of artscience creativity. Innovators can find the move from one culture to the next, from art to science or science to art, catalytic to their creativity.”

There are plenty of math geniuses bumping up against artsy types in the halls of Le Laboratoire (, playing off each other in a way that Edwards hopes universities, museums, and corporations will adopt. “It’s like any big transitional moment–and we probably all think we’ve lived in a transitional moment, but it certainly feels like we’re living in one now–there’s an opportunity for really enlightened leaders who can create lab kinds of environments,” Edwards says. “We need to be more conscious of the value that these barriers represent as opposed to fearing the barrier.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.