Whenever we think about great artists and scientists, most of us would rarely conflate the two together. Science is analytical, structured, and deterministic; the Arts are creative, boundless, and inspired. Both scientists and artists know that nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the instances of great minds doing both is much more common than most people realize, as you can see from our list of 7 artists and scientists who refused to be pigeonholed into either one.
Scientists Who Were Also Artists, Artists Who Were Also Scientists
If you stop to think about it for a moment, it's easy to see why the two disciplines overlap. Science may take dedicated study and analysis, pouring over long lists of figures or working out formulas on a chalkboard, but one only needs to remember the apocryphal tale of the Greek scientist Archimedes working day and night to solve an intractable problem to no end, only to take a bath one night and in a moment of inspiration cry out "eureka!" after the answer to his problem presented itself. Inspiration is just as important to the scientists as it is for the artists.
Examining the works of great artists often reveal that their work isn't the work of the muse, but the determined hard work of a practiced master. Leonardo Da Vinci brought original insight into the representation of the human form in art, but only after he spent years cutting open dead bodies and studying their anatomy.
Just like Archimedes and Leonardo were a mix of both, the following artists and scientists prove that they were hardly alone.
The 19th century was an age of invention and one of the most famous figures of this era was Samuel Morse, the American inventor who invented the single-wire telegraph system that enables near-instantaneous communications across incredible distances. He is most remembered as the co-creator of the unifying communication system used by telegraph operators around the world: Morse Code.
But before Morse went on to change the way the world communicated, he was an accomplished painter who studied with some of the greatest artists of the time at the Royal Academy of Arts and painted portraits for prominent Americans from an art studio he operated in Boston. One day, while he was painting a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette in Washington, he received word that his wife was deathly ill.
He rushed home to New Haven, Connecticut, but she had already died and was buried before he could get there. Devastated, he blamed the delay in receiving the news of her illness for him not being there at her death or for her funeral and sought to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The most renown German poet who had ever lived, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was most famous for works such as The Sorrow of Young Werther, published in 1774, and Faust, published in 1808 and again in 1832. Few figures in the literary canon of Europe have the honor of being referred to by a single name and have everyone know who you’re talking about, but Goethe is certainly one of them.
Goethe never saw a distinction between his poetic work and his other passion, the natural sciences. Alongside his literary works, Goethe published books on Botany and Color Theory that made real contributions to the science of the time, even founding a new branch of science—morphology, or the study of forms—with his book, On the Metamorphoses of Plants, published in 1790.
Beatrix Potter is one of the world’s best-selling children’s authors decades after her death. She wrote 28 books in all, which have sold over 100 million copies, the best known of which is the beloved The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she also illustrated. Her pastoral settings and animal characters have left an indelible mark of children everywhere, because nature and the animal world left a mark on her first.
Being a daughter in a well, high-society British family in the 19th century meant that a proper education was not something Potter would be able to pursue, but what she lacked in formal education, she more than made up for in personal curiosity and self-study. Before she turned 30, she has already a passionate and skilled naturalist, making studies of plants and animals and learning to draw while looking through a telescope.
Because of her sex and lack of formal education, few took her scientific work seriously, but her study of nature and animal life would prove an invaluable resource for her art.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Hollywood had a decidedly binary view of women. Either one was beautiful or one as not. A woman’s appearance might have gotten her in the door and her talent and hard work could keep her there, but her brilliance was never a consideration. Such was the case of Hedy LaMarr, the Austrian born movie star known best for her roles in the films Algiers and Samson and Delilah, both nominated for Oscars.
What no one sitting in the audience at the time knew, however, was that LaMarr was hard at work in 1941, along with her co-inventor George Antheil—himself an Avante-Garde Composer—inventing and patenting a technique for radio communications to rapidly switch frequencies to protect allied torpedoes from being spotted by Nazi radio detectors.
As was the case with countless female inventors before her and since, she received no credit for her invention at the time and was never paid for her work, even though her spectrum-hopping invention was the foundation for everything from GPS to Bluetooth technology.
Santiago Ramon y Cajal
The father of neuroscience, Dr. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was the first to discover how neurons communicate with each other. Cajal’s found that neurons do not touch each other and communicate using a chemical and electrical signal sent over a tiny gap between the branch-and-stump-like endings of the neuron. His work would go on to win him the Nobel Prize in 1934.
Had you told Cajal this in his youth, he might have thought you were mad. Cajal was a dedicated and passionate artist who saw himself dedicating his life to drawing the natural world, portraits, and whatever else his eyes could see. His father, concerned about his ability to earn a living, pushed Cajal to pursue medicine.
Little did either of them realize that the joke would be on them both in the end. Cajal went on to win medicine’s most prestigious award and his painstakingly beautiful drawings of the microscopic cells would go on to be displayed in Art Galleries and Museums around the world.
Alexander Borodin was the son of a Georgian prince whose natural affinity for music and languages was encouraged growing up. Learning to play several instruments and compose original works at an early age, he would go on to compose major works that embodied the nationalistic energy of Tsarist Russia in the second half of the 19th century, including the operatic Tour-de-force Prince Igor.
While he was busy making his mark on music history, he was working his way up the academic ranks of the Medico-Surgical Academy in Russia, where he taught chemistry and performed important research on aldehydes. He also furthered the cause of woman’s education in Russia by helping to establish medical courses for women in 1872.
Few people’s creative work is well-established in the popular culture of the modern world than Brian May. As the lead Guitarist for the iconic rock band Queen, May wrote “We Will Rock You”, wrote and played the soaring guitar solo in “We Are The Champions”, among any number of favorite moments from Queen’s catalog.
Just before Queen stepped on to the stage of history, May had been studying Astrophysics. Though he left his studies to live the life of a Rock Legend, he eventually returned to his studies and earned a doctorate from Imperial College in London, writing his dissertation on interplanetary dust.
The irony of Queen’s lead guitarist writing a lengthy scientific paper on stardust is lost on exactly no one—especially not artists and scientists who know better than anyone how thorough the overlap between the two can be.