Why the Greatest Scientists are Artists

Updated: Feb 11

Practicing and performing art can positively impact your ability to think creatively, critically and productively.

Nicholas Harsanyi was new to Princeton, New Jersey when he attended a party at the home of John von Neumann, the famous inventor of game theory. Harsanyi, an accomplished orchestra conductor, provided music for the evening.

At one point, he was approached by one of von Neumann’s guests. The man mentioned that he hosted weekly music sessions at his home, every Wednesday night, and asked if Harsanyi would join.

A lot of us have been in this situation before — that guy at the party learns you play an instrument, and immediately invites you to jam in his basement. In Harsanyi’s case, that guy at the party just happened to be Albert Einstein.

It’s easy to miss that Einstein wasn’t just the greatest scientist in three centuries, but also a respectable musician. He began learning the violin at age six, became an enthusiast at thirteen, and, by the time he was solving the universe’s mysteries, could rarely be found without one in his company. He often played with renowned musicians, and fellow scientists like Max Planck. On Halloweens and Christmases he played for trick-or-treaters and carolers. In 1921 he crossed the Atlantic to visit the United States, and didn’t forget to bring “Lina” (the name he gave to all his violins) with him. He says:

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

But for Einstein, music was more than a hobby. More than just a fun thing he did after work, to relax. His wife once recalled that:

As a little girl, I fell in love with Albert because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin. He also plays the piano. Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.

His son and his sister witnessed the same phenomenon. Regularly, when faced with a difficult problem, Albert would turn to music. And, importantly, he didn’t just listen, he played.

You can write it off as a quirk of an eccentric genius, but he himself believed that art had a place in the practice of science. “If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic,” he once said, “then it is science. If it is communicated through forms whose constructions are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively, then it is art.” Fair enough, but he also believed that “[a]ll great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge.” Put together, what is he saying? That scientific discovery begins as artistic intuition.

As scholars noted in Psychology Today: “Einstein himself worked intuitively and expressed himself logically [. . .] he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and even musical architectures.” To be clear, this isn’t a description of synesthesia. Einstein merely allowed the different modes of his brain to interact — logic and creativity, productivity and idleness, feeding into one another and opening up new pathways when he felt stuck.

This kind of artistic problem solving is not unique to Einstein; it’s characteristic of high performers. In 2008, researchers from Michigan State University studied the rate at which Nobel Prize-winning scientists were involved in the arts, as compared with other scientists:

Nobel laureates are at least as likely (and as much as a factor of 8 more likely) to be photographers than the average scientist; at least a factor of 2 (and as much as 18) more likely to be a practicing musician, composer, or conductor; at least a factor of 7 more likely to be a visual artist, sculptor, or printmaker; at least a factor of 7.5 more likely to be a craftsperson [. . .] at least a factor of 12 more likely to write poetry, short stories, plays, essays, novels, or popular books; and at least a factor of 22 more likely to be an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other performer.

One might expect some correlation here — highly accomplished people tend to have diverse interests. But factors of 12, 22? Surely there must be some degree of causation at play. As Adam Grant notes in his book “Originals”:

The arts also serve in turn as a powerful source of creative insight.

When Galileo made his astonishing discovery of mountains on the moon, his telescope didn’t actually have enough magnifying power to support that finding. Instead, he recognized the zigzag pattern separating the light and dark areas of the moon. [. . .] He had the necessary depth of experience in physics and astronomy, but also breadth of experience in painting and drawing. Thanks to artistic training in a technique called chiaroscuro, which focuses on representations of light and shade, Galileo was able to detect mountains where others did not.

In a way, none of this is new. Mothers play Mozart for fetuses. Elite colleges require teenagers to be both A+ students and prize-winning cellists. Most of us understand, intuitively, that engaging with the arts is useful, not just enjoyable, regardless of your profession.

And yet, we so often treat artistic endeavors as mere hobbies. Little things we do after work to relax, and no more. What would happen if we took our “hobbies” more seriously? If, like Galileo and Einstein, we used our artistic brains to approach professional challenges in different and more nuanced ways?

It’s worth a try, at least. The next time you’re stuck on a presentation, go work on your novel. While you’re figuring out a new marketing campaign or product line, start painting. It might help you see things in a new way.

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