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In Depth: Science, Society and the Arts

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference involving Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students in the presentation of their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, or creative performances.

In the weeks leading up to the conference on March 12-13, we will profile a few of the projects being presented by students.

Briefly describe your research project.

In our project, we compare and contrast the evolution of the depiction of chaos in art and neuroscience. Through this comparison, we find that in both fields, the modern conception of chaos as engendering both positive and negative outcomes was preceded by its perception as a purely negative force. This similarity between diverse fields supports the notion that the deeper understanding which resulted from attempts to grapple with chaos allowed humans to shed our fear of it and gain an appreciation of its beauty and possibilities.

What about this project called you to exploration?

We have enjoyed working together in the past on various extracurricular endeavors. We thought our complementary interests in art and science would make SSA a perfect forum in which to continue working together. After searching for a topic of research on which to collaborate, we found a mutual interest in chaos and decided to explore it further.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working in this subject matter?

We have both learned interesting things about each others’ fields from working on this project. I (Michael) enjoyed learning about how the prevalence of religious allegory in art contributed to the early conception of chaos in art as “bad.” T.J. enjoyed learning more about the observation of chaos through brain imaging.

What was the biggest challenge in completing this project?

The biggest challenge in completing this project stemmed from its focus on tracing the portrayal of chaos over a very large span of time. This broad scope caused a large amount of subject matter to be available for our consideration. Because of this, it was challenging to select material across our disciplines that would efficiently speak in concert with its counterparts.

What insight(s) did you gain from creating this project?

We gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that science has subjective components that are heavily influenced by culture.

What was your favorite part of creating this project?

We both enjoy looking at art. Because of this, our favorite part of the project was the opportunity to pick works from throughout history for our research.

Why would this project interest someone outside of your field?

In our research, we found that the evolution of the perception of chaos unfolded in a qualitatively similar manner across art and neuroscience. This finding suggests that art and science may influence each other’s progression through their mutual influence on culture as a whole. Given that this potential for art and science to influence one another’s progression is likely to hold for other disciplines, it is important for the sciences and the humanities to be aware of one another as they each continue to make advances for humanity.

In your mind, what is the value of considering science, society and the arts in the same context?

A liberal arts education is meant to be interdisciplinary so that its recipients can learn how to attack problems regardless of the field in which they lie. Achieving an optimally interdisciplinary education in a traditional academic setting is challenging because the trappings of such a setting, such as the separation of departments by building, can hamper the frequent dialogue between departments which can foster this kind of education. In light of this, events such as SSA that help explicitly foster this interdepartmental dialogue are important in any liberal arts education.