Picking up STEAM: How the arts have contributed to STEM innovation

15 Nov 2017

Image: Hafiez Razali/Shutterstock

Though STEM and the arts are seemingly irreconcilable, their combination has often resulted in some amazing innovations.

In 2002, Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, made a seemingly bold statement about the arts and science in a TED talk.

“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing … The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

Jemison’s assertion has since been corroborated by policymakers and members of the scientific community alike who have begun to embrace moving from STEM to STEAM.

From VR and animation to technology and music, there is now much more frequent discussion around how the arts and science can be combined to improve innovation.

Often, the conversation primarily concerns how science can improve the possibilities of the arts, yet the arts have arguably influenced science in equal measure, driving innovation and inspiring technology both in recent years and throughout history. Here are but a few of the myriad of examples.

Music and the first wearable pacemaker

Much in the style of today’s Silicon Valley start-ups, Earl Bakken founded his company Medtronic in 1949 in a garage in Minneapolis with his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie.

The company’s revenue was paltry in the initial stages – the pair only made $8 in the first month.

Their fortune took a turn for the better, however, largely due to Bakken’s friendship with a cardiac surgeon at the University of Minnesota named Dr C Walton Lillehei, who was a pioneer of open-heart surgery.

The early pacemakers were bulky, AC-powered machines that had to be plugged into a wall outlet.

Lillehei was aware of the limitations of this technology, namely that it could easily fail during a power outage, which could prove lethal for his patients.

So, in 1957, Lillehei approached Bakken, a man whom he knew to be extremely competent at repairing medical equipment, and asked him to solve a problem: develop a more portable pacemaker.

Bakken began the work immediately and returned to Lillehei with a prototype within months. This prototype was, in Bakken’s own words, “plagiarised”, from a circuit diagram for a transistorised metronome described in an issue of Popular Electronics magazine.

Speaking to interviewer David Rhees in 1997, Bakken explained: “One of the home projects in there was to build a little box that would put clicks on a loudspeaker, the way a metronome sets clicks for timing music.

“It’s interesting that a metronome has the same rate range as a Pioneers of the Medical Device Industry in Minnesota Oral History Project (Minnesota Historical Society) 38 normal heart. You can adjust it from 50 up to 100 or 150 or so pulses per minute.”

“So, I plagiarised that circuit, in effect, modified it a little bit so it would be a one millisecond pulse, and put it in a little box with a nine-volt photo-flash battery and a little neon bulb to show you if it was pulsing, and brought it over to the university.”

This initial prototype was, interestingly, not necessarily intended for humans. The pacemaker was first tried on a dog but when Bakken returned the next day, he found that Lillehei has attached the prototype to a young patient.

Origami – both an art and a science

Those who are mathematically inclined will be quick to note origami’s connection to science – a folded model is essentially a geometric figure.

Though it is a centuries-old Japanese practice, the paper-folding art experienced a renaissance of sorts in the early 20th century, largely due to the influence of origami master Akiro Yoshizawa.

As well as creating a number of new origami figures, Yoshizawa offered easy-to-follow instructions, which, as physicist and origami expert Dr Robert Lang has pointed out, look similar to mathematical notation. This has inspired many scientists to embrace the folding techniques of origami for use in making 3D objects out of 2D materials.

Lang is a physicist who gave up his career with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech to dedicate his life to origami.

He has developed algorithms used in German software to simulate airbag deployment, and therefore perform fewer airbag crash tests.

Lang is not the only person to recognise the potential of origami to inspire invention – indeed, there have been a number of different applications, from self-assembling robots to solar panels in space, to heart stent prototypes.

Steve Jobs and his love of calligraphy

Perhaps one of the most frequently cited examples is Steve Jobs’s story about his pre-Apple days as a college dropout, sleeping on dorm floors and auditing a calligraphy class taught by a Trappist monk.

“I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great,” Jobs explained at a 2005 commencement speech he delivered at Stanford University.

“It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

“[The Mac] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

The painter who fathered camouflage

Renowned American turn-of-the-century portrait artist Abbot Thayer is sometimes nicknamed the ‘father of camouflage’, and notably developed the theories of countershading and disruptive colouration.

The countershading theory, which is now often referred to as Thayer’s law, correctly points out that many animals have upper areas darker than their undersides.

Sharks are an example of an animal that conforms to Thayer’s law of countershading. Image: Barry Coleman

This, Thayer’s Law dictates, equalises the overall tone and thus flattens the animal, creating a natural camouflage.

Much like Icarus, whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun, Thayer overstepped himself by asserting that every animal in nature has some form of countershading, an idea that was swiftly debunked.

Thayer spent years campaigning with British embryologist John Graham Kerr (with limited success) to have the military incorporate elements of his theories into military uniforms to camouflage troops. His ideas were implemented to conceal weapons and vehicles, but not to the extent Thayer intended.

Cambridge zoologist Hugh Cott, who was a protégé of Kerr’s, rebuked and simultaneously built on Thayer’s theories of concealing-colouration, and published a 500-page book, Adaptive Coloration in Animals, which was well-received.

Cott went on to advise the British army about camouflage use during the Battle of Britain, and is greatly indebted to Thayer’s original musings.

Drawing diagnostic conclusions with medical illustration

In the days before photography had advanced to the level it has today, talented artists were often responsible for accurately recording and disseminating medical and anatomical knowledge.

Though medical illustration has a long history, and is probably “as old as medicine itself”, artist and medical illustrator Max Brödel is often called the ‘father of medical illustration’.

Originally from Leipzig, Germany, Brödel was hired by John Hopkins Hospital in 1894 and began illustrating medical textbooks.

He quickly developed a reputation as an especially talented medical illustrator despite having no formal medical training. His “extraordinary illustrations” were characterised by, as a 2011 paper in the Journal of Neurosurgery put it, “an aerial perspective that conveyed the surgeon’s operative viewpoint and precise surgical anatomy”.

Brödel collaborated with many of the brightest medical minds at the time, such as the ‘father of modern American surgery’, William Halsted, the man credited with establishing gynaecology as a medical specialty; Dr Howard Atwood Kelly, known as the ‘father of neurosurgery’; and the man who discovered Cushing’s disease, Harvey Cushing.

Brödel also developed and popularised new artistic techniques, such as the carbon dust technique, which entails “drawing images with carbon pencils and working up three-dimensional form by application of carbon dust with a dry brush”, according to The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration. This technique enables a level of “tonal development well suited to the various interpretations required by many scientific disciplines”.

In 1911, Brödel was appointed head of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at John Hopkins, a department dedicated to training medical illustrators. The first of its kind in the world, it inspired similar academic programmes.

What made Brödel’s images stand out, along with his obvious talent, was the extensive research he undertook to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter before attempting to illustrate it.

His illustrations helped to reinforce the legacy of many of the surgeons he worked with, and were deeply edifying tools that educated generations of medical professionals.

Medical illustration is still a vitally important service that helps to communicate complex biological information to broad audiences, and it is Max Brödel who inspired much of the practices in use today.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic