The Physics of Dance, the Art of Geology

On a recent Tuesday morning, Dr. Randall Milstein addressed his class: “Who has a cell phone and can play us some music?”

A student volunteered, and Milstein instructed the students to close their eyes. He asked them to draw for one minute—without stopping—with their eyes closed.

hm_4520_161011_hc407artofsci-08This isn’t an experimental art course: Milstein is teaching the Honors College colloquium, The Art of Science/the Science of Art, a seminar examining the connection between the arts and science. During the ten-week class, students explore how scientists and artists influence and inspire each other.

Milstein holds appointments in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and the College of Science, is Astronomer-in-Residence with the Oregon Space Grant Consortium, and he is a regular instructor in the Honors College, teaching a variety of classes. He designed this colloquium to approach science from the perspective of another one of his passions—photography, a field in which he holds an additional undergraduate degree.

Although his engagement with science, art, and their interface is lifelong, it was his experience teaching Honors College students that prompted the creation of this course: “HC students are renaissance thinkers; they have many different interests. Students are often told that they have to do one thing—their major—but if you’re going to be a good scientist or an engineer, you have to be imaginative, creative,” Milstein said.

The colloquium’s focus on creativity resonates with students. Arden Babb, a biological engineering student, said it was a draw for her to enroll in the course. “I want to be more confident that the artistic side of me is good for studying science, not that they’re contrary to each other. I want to merge these parts of myself,” she said.

The Art of Science/the Science of Art is one of more than two dozen HC colloquia offered each term. These discussion-based seminars are small classes, usually with no more than 12 students in each section. Colloquia topics are typically interdisciplinary in nature, focusing on topics, themes, or ideas as opposed to particular fields of study. Other recent offerings include The History Games, and Wart Hogs and Boa Constrictors: Topics in Science and Religion.

hm_4490_161011_hc407artofsci-02Creating a dialogue between disciplines and promoting engaged inquiry is one of the learning outcomes for all HC graduates and a hallmark of the colloquia format and approach. Dr. Milstein’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research and thinking is ideal for problem solving: “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex, but the humanities might tell you why that’s a bad idea,” he said.

The intersection of arts and science is the focus of a university-wide initiative at Oregon State called SPARK: Arts + Science @ OSU. The Honors College is a partner in a yearlong series of events celebrating the relationship between the arts and science. In October, 2016, Milstein presented a SPARK event focusing on the cultural impacts of Star Trek.

Cultivating a lifelong passion for both science and art is one the goals for the course and a key message that Milstein shares with his class: “Students often say to me, ‘I have to give up on being an actress to be a mathematician.’ Or, ‘I have to give up art to be a physicist. I say to these students: No, you don’t give up what you love. Dance is physics. Geology is art. Use these passions to make you stronger in your field. Don’t see them as a limitation.”

Ultimately, Milstein hopes students in his colloquium continue to hone their creativity—in the lab and in the art studio.

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