Books, Creativity, Science

Revitalizing labs with “artscience” — David Edwards: The Lab


In science, meticulousness and diligence trump creativity and imagination. At least that is how it’s often perceived: Scientific logic and order lead to Truth; imaginative creative chaos leads to something looking nice at best.

This dichomtomy is all wrong and obstructs innovation, argues The Lab by David Edwards, a Harvard professor with a vision of disciplinary cross-over:

“Never has the spirit of innovation been more highly valued than today. Around the world, people see the hard-to-teach skills of creativity as the lifeblood of cultural change and the engine of economic development. In The Lab, David Edwards presents a blueprint for revitalizing labs with “artscience”― creative thought that erases conventional boundaries between art and science―to produce innovations that otherwise might never see the light of day.”

And –according to his CV— because of all that creativity he was made the youngest member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2001. What a success! If if helps me to get more papers out, I am happy to revitalize my lab with anything — so I was really looking forward to reading The Lab.

What a nasty surprise

But it’s hard to underestimate my disappointment: Half of The Lab looks like a mind-numbing laundry list of how long it took to get how many Harvard undergrads into this-and-that TwoWord project: ArtScience, MuseTrek, CityTrek, ArtWise, FoodLab, LaboShop, TechPoint, … to name just a few of them. And all of this topped up with obsessive name-dropping from famous French chefs to even more non-famous undergrads. To make things even worse, until the end I wondered what all of that had to do with the grilling and barbecuing the cover promises.

I am sure that Edwards had a great time in his lab and his students produced cool stuff. But in The Lab the excitement that must have been part of many artist-scientist collaborations drowns in unnecessary detail: dates, names, locations of product launches. I learned less about the creativity and culture behind Le Whif than about how hectic the launch had been.

Then I realized that The Lab is just very badly edited. The book should be read in reverse order! Chapter 2 alludes to all the projects that are explained only in the second half of the bood. Reading about ‘breathable food’ is quite confusing before someone bothers to tell you what it is. And the Ryoji/Gross artist/mathematician project on visualizing Cantor’s Set (p36) makes much more sense if you know more about the two collaborators (p83+).

That’s what you need editors for

Some bits and pieces of The Lab are really engaging (for example the Ryoji/Gross story once you get to it, or Hugo van Vuuren and the microbial fuel cells to lighten up Africa) but these good parts are completely overshadowed by long, unreflected lists of dates and peoples.

It’s really a pity: I’m sure a good editor –not afraid of cutting and sewing– could have rescued The Lab and its message of creativity and innovation.

Florian

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2 thoughts on “Revitalizing labs with “artscience” — David Edwards: The Lab

  1. Even their website could do a bit better on the organization. You have to click through to even get a hint of what the pictures are, and the intriguing large blue cones (speakers) mis- links to edible bottles. Still have no idea what those cones are!

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