What’s the IB TOK link between the arts and the natural sciences?

Science has never stood alone as an island in its own right. Science has always had links and connections with other subject areas. Leonardo da Vinci, who painted Mona Lisa, spent much of his time drawing anatomical pictures. Islamic art and architecture uses geometrical designs that occur in nature. IB TOK students will be familiar with these sorts of links and connections between different areas of knowledge.

All IB students study a science and the literary arts, whether in either English or Literature and Performance. IB students who apply for engineering at university will also be a dab hand at literary criticism, and those who apply for History of Art, will know data collection and the scientific method from the inside.

TOK offers the opportunity to explore in more detail, the links and connections between traditionally disparate areas such as science and art. The knowledge framework is intended to make this easy, so you might compare science and art in terms of scope and applications, key concepts, methodology, historical development or links with personal knowledge.

From a western perspective, it might be assumed that there’s a clear and obvious distinction between real science and pseudo-science. However, in her book ‘Science and African logic’ Helen Verran takes a different cultural viewpoint and investigates science and maths in Yoruba primary schools and concludes that logic and maths are culturally relative.

The collaborative and interdisciplinary approach is where many cutting edge discoveries are taking place. Jim Al-Khalili’s work on quantum biology explores the interface between two traditionally separate subject areas: biology and physics. Semir Zeki‘s work on Neuroesthetics takes a scientific approach to the arts and investigates the relationship between brain activity and appreciation of art. Moreover university courses increasingly reflect a trend towards interdisciplinarity, exemplified best by the innovation Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree offered at UCL.

TOK students are encouraged to explore links and connections between subject areas and one possibility is to explore science in relation to either ethics or religious knowledge systems. Joseph Wright of Derby‘s 1768 painting, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ raises ethical questions about the scientific experiment. A different approach exploring the interplay between the arts and ethics has been developed by the performance artist Jacqueline Traide who simulates animal experiments on herself to make a moral point about the use and abuse of animals in the cosmetics industry. TOK students might investigate the long and complex historical relationship between science and religion.

So what of the common traits between art and science? Both are practical activities and both require a creative and imaginative impulse; both art and science are a product of action, and both are a response to the natural world. In his book The Ascent of Man, J. Bronowski observed that, ‘Man is unique not because he does science or because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvellous plasticity of mind.’

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