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Art Mirrors Science at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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This month, The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited an extraordinary display of 51 individual local artists including painters, sculptors, video makers and performance artists. Called "Here Not There," Curator Lucia San Roman observed: "I had no point to make other than that San Diego is in fact made of distinct groupings of artists. Metaphorically, I think of them as a group of satellites. They may know each other, but don't really overlap."

Yet many of the works of art had a technical or scientific underpinning, and it seemed an effort to convey advancements in computer technology, nanotechnology and space exploration.

There was a scalable city created by artists in their experimental game lab at the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technologies (Cal IT 2). Another exhibits shows replications of the 1985 earthquake, also produced at UCSD and their Caltrans seismic response modification and test facility. Yet another exhibit that in miniature looks like a satellite observatory, transmits tiny radio waves triggering kaleidoscope-like reflections on the wall.

In the last twenty years or more, the region has become a Mecca for high tech, biotech and medical technologies. While it's not always easy for the artist to see the scientific prowess-taking place or for the scientist to see the growing presence of art in our region, a critical mass of both art and science is happening.

A few weeks ago, Claire Trageser of the Voice of San Diego talked about Dale Chihuly's open-air exhibit at the Salk Institute entitled "Salk Meets Picasso." Trageser wrote that Salk believed in the importance of using art to stimulate creativity. According to Dr. William Brody, Salk's current president, Salk "understood the appreciation of art and saw its connection to science."

No surprise then that most of the scientists at Salk are equally accomplished in the fine arts, either drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument or in some way hosting concerts in its auditorium for themselves, their staff and local residents. Nor is it any surprise that more of our region's "best and brightest" are equally accomplished in the fine arts as well as the hard sciences. Nor that our art tends to mirror our science.

Leonard Shlain, author of Art and Physics: Parallel Dimensions in Time and Space, once observed that great art reflects what is happening in our physical world and often predicts our scientific future. For example, he relates the story that while Picasso probably didn't know Einstein, his Cubism was developed about the same time that Einstein first published his theory of relativity. In fact, Shlain says, that if you asked each of them to explain their artistic or scientific discovery, they use much the same analogies to explain what they had discovered.

Robert Root Bernstein, a MacArthur Prize Fellow studying at UCSD 20 years ago, took it upon himself to look at the biographies of the top 100 scientists who lived over the last 200 years. What he found was startling because he found that every great scientist was not only accomplished in his field but in the fine arts as well.

In his subsequent book, Sparks of Genius, he and his wife Michelle after looking at the question much more deeply discovered that there shouldn't be two cultures as currently exists, one favoring artists and the other scientists, but that in fact the whole-brained individual is one who draws on both sides both of the brain and the most successful of our species have found a way to create those synapses between both hemispheres to make the most of that thing we call the brain.

Museums in communities across America are in a way microcosm of our economy, our society, and our times.

Eger is the Van Deerlin Endowed Chair of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University and Director of the Creative Economy Initiative.