Gabriel Weston: Keeping an open mindBMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l2074 (Published 09 May 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l2074
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Despite very little formal education he was surely the greatest polymath who ever lived, displaying genius in areas as diverse as art, medicine, engineering, and invention.
Given the huge influence of Leonardo’s imagination, it’s disappointing how arts and sciences have become siloed over the years—a steady divorce that gained real traction in the 19th century. This is still evident today, in ways ranging from how museums are organised to our ludicrous tradition of choosing just three A level subjects, which often results in arts or sciences being erased from children’s intellectual landscape by the time they hit 16.
But the tide is turning. Writers such as the poet Lavinia Greenlaw and the playwright Bryony Kimmings have shown that science and medicine are perfect fodder for highbrow literature. Popular science writing itself is having a heyday, enabling once arcane ideas to be enjoyed by people who might otherwise feel unsure about dipping their arty toes in. Institutions such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medicine Unboxed project have been getting these two disciplines in bed together for years. And 11 UK medical schools now have foundation programmes specifically for arts graduates who want to be doctors—a massive improvement on how things were when I started out.
What a joy, then, to discover London’s Science Gallery this week. Nestled just under the Shard in the campus of Guy’s Hospital, this free exhibition space promises to celebrate the collision between arts and sciences. Its current exhibition, Spare Parts,1 does just that.
Garishly coloured kidneys made from blown glass portray the artist John A Douglas’s ambivalent feelings about his own renal transplant. A glass fronted beehive, writhing with life, is connected to a container incubating live human skin cells—celebrating the collaboration between a beekeeper, an artist, and a cell biologist. And a massive wall made from a thick felted material, coiled like the cerebral cortex, disorientates the approaching visitor because of the peculiar way it absorbs sound.
As with all good exhibitions, some parts were uncomfortable for me. In particular, many displays were scarily high tech. But Leonardo would have loved it. I soon gave in and allowed myself to be escorted by a perky young brainbox, in a Science Gallery T shirt, to marvel at a 3D printer pumping out tiny replicas of body parts. She gave me a miniature magenta brain to take away as a souvenir. Now, every time I roll it between my finger and thumb, I remember that a doctor cannot afford to be narrow minded. And I resolve to open my hardening heart and middle aged mind to new ideas, wherever I find them.
Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that I have no competing interests.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.