Who, What, When
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CTMoment The art of science, by Jonathan Brody '92
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The difficult art of science
Jonathan Brody '92
One of my closest friends from my Skidmore years became a successful creative writer, and another friend became a successful marketer for the likes of IBM and SAP. Similarly, my career and interests also integrate several disciplines. I started at Skidmore as a Filene Music Scholar focused on percussion, completed a major in history, and then obtained my PhD in pathology and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University. During my PhD training, I took a short sabbatical to enroll in the famous writing-seminars program at Hopkins and even took time to cowrite a screenplay (don’t look for it at a theater near you).
I am interested in books, film, music, paintings, and architecture. Some of the artists I “get” the most are Walker Percy, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Virgina Woolf, Franz Kafka, Bob Dylan, Chekhov, Orson Wells, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, Pearl Jam, Mozart, and Van Gogh. Such classics as Citizen Kane, Hannah and Her Sisters, Starry Night, Well You Needn’t, and The Moviegoer all have a certain brilliance and magic that permits a wonderful loss of reality. These works inspire me, and make me realize the great potential that humanity has to offer us. To me, the common thread running through these works, and many others like them, is that their creativity, weirdness, and uniqueness is simple yet beautiful. For example, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, if not perfectly executed, is a narrative that works through a combination of brilliant writing and magnificent risk-taking. (And you could imagine its being reincarnated, with only the slightest imperfection, as a teen horror movie about an angst-ridden youngster on the verge of suicide.)
Scientists who’ve demonstrated similar brilliance, risk-taking, and creativity include James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Arthur Kornberg, Daniel Nathans, Gregor Mendel, Alexander Fleming, and Joshua Lederberg. Remarkable laboratory successes, like discovering the mechanism behind the synthesis of RNA and DNA (Kornberg), can be equally inspiring as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The difference between scientists and artists is that only one narrative, one melody, or one line in a script is available during the genesis of scientific discoveries. The work of scientists has to fit within the rules of the natural world, for which we attempt to define laws and create labels.
I would argue that an equal creative energy was tapped by all the aforementioned artists and scientists as they worked to generate something novel by bending, or at least looking beyond, the rules. In the arts, one can take a note from one key signature and play it in another (as Charles Mingus would do in his solos), or one can add external conflict to make a plot point work (isn’t it convenient that Cuba has a revolution the same night Fredo betrays Michael in The Godfather?). In science one must remain within the vastly complicated but rigidly structured universe. It is quite remarkable that any scientific progress is made in such a complicated, enormous, and delicately mixed-up world. Scientists’ work is judged by other scientists, but in the end the real verdict comes from nature, which always lets scientists know if we are
correct in our theories and conclusions.
Every day the people in my lab spend hours chipping away at a difficult, cryptic, dense narrative: the biology behind cancer cells. I try to meld what we find with what other scientists have done before us. As I write papers, build upon theories, and create models on which future discoveries may be based, I rarely have the luxury—the creative license—to search for multiple third acts for my screenplay or for new colors to complement what I already have on my canvas. Nevertheless, art and its value for experimentation has made me look at the natural world in multifarious ways that help lead me to more questions, ideas, and inspirations. It is comforting to know that nature will ultimately decide whether I produced a pioneering piece of art. The hit stories that I may be fortunate enough to stumble upon will undoubtedly be true pieces of art, not so much because of me, but simply because nature has already written them.
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