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22 November 2008

Paintings to bridge the arts and science

Nicola Sasanelli has produced a book with prints of 10 paintings to celebrate the achievements of famous scientists. Sasanelli is one of 26 scientific attachés serving in Italian embassies worldwide to promote scientific research. Profits from the book are used for scholarships. The ten canvas oil paintings are now permanently displayed at NICTA, the National Information Communication Technology Centre of Excellence in Canberra. Rob Morrison reports.

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Rob Morrison: Almost exactly 50 years ago in May of 1959, C.P. Snow delivered the Rede Lecture on the 'Two Cultures', later expanded into an influential book in which he lamented the lack of communication between the sciences and the humanities. Snow questioned why it should be acceptable for those in the humanities to regard scientists who hadn't read Charles Dickens as illiterate while they themselves could not explain scientific terms as basic as mass or acceleration, let alone describe the second law of thermodynamics and what it means.

Perhaps Snow was just an early commentator on a 'them and us' divide that's always afflicted us. Perhaps, by giving it a catchy name, he actually encouraged the perception that the sciences and humanities are at opposite ends of an intellectual spectrum. But you can cite many individuals who have happily embraced the two cultures, from polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, to Einstein and his violin, and hordes of other scientists who were and are also practitioners in the arts.

Some artistic pursuits, like music, are inherently mathematical, as is architecture. A disproportionate number of famous writers have also been doctors. Photography combines art and science, but long before it the great artists were also skilled technicians, making their own paints and casting huge bronzes, while today's computer technology is increasingly embedded in filmmaking and in creating visual and musical art forms of its own. And so it goes on.

These days we'd do better to research the links between art and science and how some individuals can excel in both than to perpetuate the notion that they are antagonistic. In 2005 the journal Nature devoted an entire issue to this subject, number 434, you can find it on the web. And next year, 50 years after Snow's essay, there'll be many beneficiaries of one person's efforts to bridge the divide.

What if They Never Existed? is the title of a book by Nicola Sasanelli in which ten of his paintings are superbly reproduced to celebrate the achievements of nine famous scientists and the nature of science itself. Dr Sasanelli, an Italian with the Order of Australia, is one of 26 scientific attaches serving in Italian embassies worldwide to promote cooperative and international scientific and technological research. Dr Sasanelli works in oils, his style is abstract, his book a tribute to scientists who change the world, from Pythagoras to Einstein and Fleming, and his question is 'what would our world be like now if any one of them had not existed?'

The book has just been launched, but the occasion was not simply a celebration of one man's efforts to flout the cliché of the Two Cultures. Profits from the book are funding Italian-Australian scholarships of $5,000 each for scientific studies and research in 2009. The premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, launched the book in Adelaide.

Mike Rann: Thank you very much for that introduction. I'm delighted to be here because I see Nicola Sasanelli as very much a bridge between arts and science and also a bridge between Australia and Italy.

Rob Morrison: Support and funding for the book and scholarships have come from scientific organisations and businesses as well as governments. Premier Rann has championed the project and written the books foreword. So why is the project proving so attractive?

Mike Rann: What he's done is that out of this book he set up a scholarship scheme which is about really creating dialogue between Australian scientists, particularly at the start of their careers, and Italian scientists and visa versa, so already the first group have been awarded, which brings together scientists from Italy and Australia, not just South Australia but across Australia. I think it's terrific. I borrow ideas from Canadian provinces. I know, for instance, that Canadian provinces are borrowing ideas from us. In a similar vein, what Nicola wants to do is leave a legacy and a heritage of continuing exchanges between Italian scientists and Australian scientists, particularly at the young level because we know that those relationships forged between people in their 20s will endure for generations.

Nicola Sasanelli: Some words about the book. First of all, how this book has started. It is two big elements; one is my passion...

Rob Morrison: Dr Sasanelli explained what had inspired his paintings and echoed the need to encourage young students who have a natural leaning towards science to persist with it.

Nicola Sasanelli: If you believe that engineering is what you want to do, if mathematics is what you want to do, you have to follow this, follow yourself. In the competitive activity now, the world is very competitive, you need to have one more thing, and this is the passion. If you don't have this, you will never reach the top of the pyramid.

Rob Morrison: The Australian Academy of Science has seen such potential in the project that it's taken on its administration and sponsored some of the scholarships. Professor Bob Vincent was there to announce the first four winners.

Bob Vincent: It's a pleasure for me to represent Professor Kurt Lambeck, president of the Australian Academy of Science. I'm pleased to announce today the four successful applicants for this program. They are two Australians and two Italians who will each receive an award of $5,000 to collaborate with our counterparts in Italy and Australia.

Rob Morrison: And they were just the first. Already two more scholarships have been awarded, another nine are about to be, and the list of sponsoring organisations is growing. That will provide funding for more scholarships in future years, as will profits from book sales which are going well here as well as in Europe and America. It all reflects the strong international nature of the project which the Academy is keen to develop.

Bob Vincent: The Academy actually runs a lot of bilateral research programs with countries overseas, and we're always looking for openings to promote further bilateral relations. In this case we're particularly delighted because it promotes early-career researchers and students the chance to get them to travel to Italy and visa versa, and to set up those research networks which are absolutely crucial for the development of science and technology. We were absolutely overwhelmed by the response to the call for applications. We got 103 applications in just the three weeks that the call was open, and some very high quality and excellent applications.

Rob Morrison: So, 50 years after Snow's essay stressed the divide between the sciences and humanities, this book by a scientist diplomat is combining art and literature to raise money to fund science and technology on an international scale. It may not support his proposition, but you'd imagine that C.P. Snow would be pretty pleased. Rob Morrison for The Science Show.


Rob Morrison
Flinders University Adelaide South Australia!DrRobMorrison!_7661.aspx

Further Information

Italian Australian scholarships

What if they never existed can be ordered directly from Ms Paula Nagel who is responsible for administering the Scholarship Fund

Digital images


Title: What if they never existed
Author: Nicola Sasanelli


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David Fisher

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