The Art and Craft of Science


Suppose you have a talented child with a profound interest in science. This child has a choice of going to an academically elite high school or to a high school where the curriculum focuses on training mechanics, carpenters, and designers. Where do you send her? It’s a no-brainer, right? To the academically elite high school.

Except that Walter Alvarez, a doctor and physiologist, decided to send his scientifically talented son, Luis, to an arts and crafts school where Luis took industrial drawing and woodworking instead of calculus. Big mistake? Not exactly. Luis Alvarez won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1968. He attributed his success to an uncanny ability to visualize and build almost any kind of experimental apparatus he could imagine (Alvarez, 1987).

Suppose you have a baby Einstein. The question is, would you know it? After all, Einstein was certainly not a standout in his mathematics and physics classes. Yet he also ended up with a Nobel Prize. So what were his special talents? The ability to visualize concepts in his mind, a talent that was fostered by Aargau Cantonal School in Switzerland, where he completed his secondary education- the school encouraged individual differences, sense perception, visualization, all developed through a student’s self-directed activity. One outcome of this training was Einstein’s habit of imagining himself riding a light beam or falling in an elevator at the speed of light, the basis of thought experiments that yielded his revolutionary insights.

Einstein also had a talent for music. Although he is well known for his improvisational ability on both the violin and the piano, few people are aware that he attributed many of his greatest scientific insights to “musical thinking”. As he put it, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me learn music from the time I was 6.”

And what about the Swedish biochemist Hans von Euler-Chelpin? He was a direct descendant of the Swiss mathematician and physicist Leonhard Euler; Hans’s science-centered family may not have been too happy when he focused on fine arts in college. Steve Jobs too attributes his success to his interest in design. These scientists carry the banner for arts-infused science education.

Arts and crafts, woven into academics, develop such skills as observation, visual thinking, the ability to recognize and form patterns, and manipulative ability. They develop habits of thought and action that include practicing, persevering, and trial-and-error problem solving.

For all these reasons, finding ways to foster arts education alongside science education—and, even better, finding ways to integrate the two, as in Waldorf schools—must become a high priority for all education that wants to encourage students capable of creative participation in a science-dominated society like ours.


Let’s start with skill development. One of the skills that all science textbooks and curriculums nominally value is that of observing. There was a time not too long ago when scientists required their students to take drawing or painting lessons as part of their scientific training in the belief that whatever you haven’t drawn, you haven’t seen. Although this requirement has lapsed, it’s still true that drawing enhances seeing. Indeed, all forms of observation, whether visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory, take training and practice to develop to the fullest extent. Further, all types of sensory observation have applications to scientific practice. For example, it’s well established that physicians who have musical training are much better able to diagnose patients using chest and abdominal percussion and stethoscopy.

Visual Thinking

Learning to observe through drawing and painting has another benefit for students studying the sciences and mathematics. It turns out that one of the best predictors of success in scientific subjects in grades K–16 is visual imaging ability. Surprisingly, students who excel in science and mathematics usually outperform even those majoring in the arts in visual imaging and visual memory tests (Winner & Casey, 1992).

Conversely, students who have poor visual memory and imaging ability often do poorly in science and mathematics. However, many studies have shown that providing students who have visualizing deficits with drawing and painting classes improves their visual imaging and memory test scores. This training also results in a significant increase in the students’ ability to perform well in their science and mathematics classes and to succeed in standardized testing situations

Recognizing and Forming Patterns

Scientific thinking is almost synonymous with recognizing and forming patterns. Every hypothesis and theory is the discovery of a pattern within some set of observations. For this reason, artists, choreographers, and musicians, whose works invariably invent and play with patterns, have a great deal to teach scientists.

The father of the famous physicist Richard Feynman clearly understood this connection. He introduced his son to patterning games very much like those taught at such art schools as the Bauhaus when the boy was still a toddler. One of those games involved coloured tiles like those used to make mosaics. Feynman senior would start a pattern and see whether Richard could finish it. Soon the boy was making up his own patterns and yet another pattern was set in motion (Feynman, 1988). As an adult, Richard Feynman discovered many new patterns in physics, which later won him a Nobel Prize.

Ned Seeman, one of the founders of the new science of nanotechnology (the making of functional objects out of molecule-sized materials), was similarly inspired by M. C. Escher’s patterns. Seeman now studies artists’ patterns explicitly for their insights into the processes of making structures. Other scientists have also looked to the work of artists—or used their expressive forms—to hunt for clues to hidden patterns. Physicists, for instance, have worked with choreographers to illuminate the movement patterns of electrons.

Manipulative Ability

Craftsmanship, often evidenced by the development of fine motor control, is also highly relevant to scientific success. As fewer and fewer students take art, music, and crafts classes in school, with some students even failing to learn cursive writing, fine motor control and simple manipulative skills, are today increasingly absent.

This sad state of affairs is the result of a lack of appreciation of these skills—not among scientists, but among education “experts”. Waldorf Education, since its inception has honoured this essential quality of combining art and science together to bring in wholesome education to the child.