Right brain alert: Can teaching art to future scientists help save the planet?

A special Climate Progress report from Gainesville, Florida.

Robert Ponzio, art instructor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Oak Hall School took to the skies Sunday above Florida’s Kennedy Space Center this weekend in a specially modified, G-FORCE ONE aircraft. Working in a near weightless environment traditionally reserved for astronaut training and scientific experimentation, Ponzio hopes to inspire students to pursue careers in science. He also aspires to forge a stronger, academic alliance between the traditional sciences and the creative arts.

You can follow Ponzio’s adventure on the plane nicknamed the “vomit comet” at his blog, Hardcore Painting. For those CP readers who want to go weightless, it’s about $5,000 a pop. Info here.

“Solving unprecedented problems of achieving energy independence, protecting the biosphere, and mitigating climate change will require visionary thinking, extraordinary innovation, and sometimes, breakthrough technologies. Focusing on traditional academic courses is essential, but not enough,” Ponzio said, noting Daniel H. Pink’s Wired Magazine article, “Revenge of the Right Brian.”

Pink suggests that while the left-brain’s logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs are still necessary, they are no longer sufficient. Pink writes,

[T]he abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent . . . to detect patterns and opportunities . . . and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing.”

Ponzio agrees, and adds, “The process of creating art requires students to engage observational skill which allows them to see beyond stereotypes, and recognize exactly what the eye sees, as they organize space and form. The Arts must play a vital role in raising the new generation of problem solving innovators that we desperately need.”

I certainly agree, since logic alone is never going to motivate enough people to do what is necessary to save the health and well-being of future generations (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1 and Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”).

The G-FORCE ONE aircraft’s parabolic flight path will allow Ponzio fifteen, 30-second periods of near Zero Gravity. Through his visual experiments, Ponzio hopes to expressively capture the moment while also creating images which inspire his students to recognize the fragility of the earth and understand the important role science has in protecting it. The first will be a Calligraphic Brush Painting inside a containment unit. A high-speed video camera will record the fluid dynamics of colored inks in Zero Gravity. The second experiment will be a free floating, expressive drawing using dry media on papers mounted to the walls of the aircraft. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,” says Ponzio, “and I hope to share with all art and science students, the excitement of creating work within the chaos of microgravity.” Ponzio has involved his students by simulating the Zero Gravity flight by suspending them in the air hanging with inversion boots while creating art works. His popular web blog, chronicles his creative process and preparation for this extraordinary venture.

Ponzio applied for, and won a grant to participate in this microgravity program which is sponsored by NASA, The Stephen Hawking Microgravity Education and Research Center, Space Florida and The Zero Gravity Corporation. Space Florida, the new state agency charged with promoting Florida’s space industry, and The Zero Gravity Corporation have created the Florida Microgravity Education and Research Center, to facilitate Florida teacher and student space education and aerospace microgravity research expertise. This is the last flight of its kind, as funding has been cut.

You can read a news account in the Gainseville Sun here.

Read what Ponzio has to say about global warming here.

9 Responses to Right brain alert: Can teaching art to future scientists help save the planet?

  1. Rick says:

    I would have thought that this big jet that goes up and down for the purpose of going up and down would find a lot less approval in this blog.

    For now I’m not getting past this big jet as a huge symbol of gratuitous waste of the western world.

    Theres an argument for art maybe, but I don’t see it unless art means doing whatever you want including burning as much jet fuel as you like in the hope of inspiring others.

    At some point I would think the definition of “denier” will go beyond what people say and include what they do. – like they say – actions speak louder than words.

    denier talking point I suppose – but still – can’t see past it at this point.

    [JR: It is a pretty friggin’ short flight! I’m not a total spoil-sport, at least not yet.]

  2. Anonymous says:

    The previous comment begs the question, and illustrates how everyone – not just scientists – could benefit from lessons in “perspective” drawing. Apparently, the expedition was funded by the Florida Microgravity Education and Research Center to facilitate Florida teacher and student space education and aerospace microgravity research expertise. The plane was going up anyway, full of teachers performing science experiments, creating a larger “economy of scale.” Ponzio, the lone artist in the group, donated his considerable publicity to draw awareness to a much bigger issue – the realities of climate change, and the need for innovative and creative solutions to huge problems. What part of that “angle” is too obtuse for the commenter to “perceive” or to “see”?

  3. This is one of those times where concise and accurate language
    is more important than diplomatic euphemisms. To be blunt,
    the “reasoning” used by both Pink and Ponzio is pure crap,
    as is their “conclusion”.

    The angry tone of this comment is because I share their motivation.
    But “friends” like Pink and Ponzio do more damage than enemies.

    1. The “right vs. left” brain dichotomy is a less valid and less useful
    oversimplification than the “male vs. female” brain dichotomy.

    2. Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Taking an art class
    will not make you a “good artist” … or a “good human being”.
    And if, somehow, it boosts your empathy, and your ability to see the
    big picture, that probably means you’ve led a distorted, specialized life.

    The corporate market system *selects* for these distortions:
    Constrained by narrow economic notions of “value”, and by the
    imperatives of “specialization of labor”, modern culture has *evolved*
    to produce distorted brain architectures.

    The problem is not the “modern” brain’s physical architecture, but its
    failure to adequately *integrate* ANALYSIS, ETHICS, and EMOTIONS.

    “Art” is not the solution. The solution is to resist and remedy
    specialization by valuing *generalists*. That must occur in tandem
    with de-emphasizing economic *ideology* as a viable foundation for
    a human being’s self-image, worldview, and culture.

    I’m glad that funding for Ponzio has been cut. His *ETHICS* are
    abhorrent. How much fuel will he burn for a few periods of
    weightlessness, in which he hopes the Muse will “inspire” him?
    And he “teaches art” to his students by having them hang upside down?!

    [JR: Don’t be silly. He’ll burn virtually no fuel. It is a very short flight — and one that would have happened anyway.]

    RECOMMENDATIONS: The methods below are far more useful,
    cost-effective, and widely applicable:

    1. Read something like Bruce Wexler’s
    “Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change”.

    2. Train the mind with drugs. Seriously — see, e.g, *Fox* News:,2933,374264,00.html

  4. paulm says:

    Were at the stage where only ‘managed’ depression (with fingers crossed that we can get pass all the nasties associated with one) is probably going to give us a chance. Things are way out of control…

    even that bleak future, Anderson said, could only be achieved if rich countries adopted “draconian emission reductions within a decade”. Only an unprecedented “planned economic recession” might be enough. The current financial woes would not come close.

    Its all a bit scary…

    Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst

    At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert audience and contemplated a strange feeling. He wanted to be wrong.

    …current targets are hopelessly optimistic. Many scientists, politicians and campaigners privately admit that 2C is a lost cause. Ask for projections around the dinner table after a few bottles of wine and more vote for 650ppm than 450ppm as the more likely outcome.

    Its all coming undone at the seams (mmm…). Hansen might have come up with 350 as a political goal to kick start serious action or it could be a real target in which case what can one say, but this article lays out the reality….

    “The awful arithmetic means that exclusively focusing on a 450ppm outcome, at this moment, could end up providing another reason for not reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions.

  5. red says:

    Rick: “Theres an argument for art maybe, but I don’t see it unless art means doing whatever you want including burning as much jet fuel as you like in the hope of inspiring others.”

    Zero Gravity Corporation is one of Peter Diamandis’s efforts. Another is the X PRIZE Foundation, which is running the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE to encourage entrepreneurs (and interested major car companies like Tata Motors) to make marketable 100 MPGe cars. It’s also trying to start other energy/environment competitions.

    There’s no doubt that flying an airplane for fun (a Zero-G ride for thrills, a vacation, etc) or for business (microgravity research, astronaut training, getting to business meetings, etc) is going to use fuel.

    The same is true, on a bigger scale, for a suborbital ride (something Diamandis is also involved in). A lot of the business for that new market is expected to be essentially thrill rides. The capabilities that result (if they in fact do get deployed and thrive), I would argue, are going to be environmentally useful for deploying Earth monitoring remote sensing instruments (for immediate science, engineering tests of space-bound science instruments in space conditions, calibration of orbiting environment satellite instruments), sampling the upper atmosphere, launching very small orbiting environmental payloads, and perhaps in later generations eventually lowering space access costs so that more ambitious environment-friendly space applications can some day happen. There is also a widely-reported “overview effect” reported by astronauts when seeing the Earth from above where they often get more environmentally aware that could apply to suborbital rides, too. Yet, there is no getting around that suborbital thrill rides use fuel. I think it’s well worth it, but it’s hard to quantify and I can’t prove all the benenfits I mention will actually happen. You also have to factor in the fact that you personally may not want to go on such a ride (I don’t particularly), but it may be quite important to someone else.

    Here’s more about a different kind of Zero-G art, Jeanne and Spider Robinson’s Stardance project:

    Zero-G seems to be getting a foothold in NASA microgravity work:

  6. Rebecca says:

    It is mind-boggling that Crawford (above) would begrugde a fraction of the Zero G’s carbon emission in a single flight populated by 34 science educators, and one art educator, in the service of scientific advancement and progressive thought.

    Distilled to its essence, Rick Crawford’s comment, “To be blunt, the ‘reasoning’ used by both Pink and Ponzio is pure crap, as is their ‘conclusion,'” belies some extreme carbon “envy” and an eerie, perhaps reactionary, call to traditional concepts of western religion and morality (sound familiar?). The visceral comment ignores that for many individuals, brain hemispheric integration (which he would appear to champion as a “moral and ethical” integration) actually results from process (sometimes creative) in those that are otherwise neuro-architecturally predisposed (or trained) to function with a limited (albeit valuable) skill-set. (See generally

    In fact, neither Pink nor Ponzio has asserted that art is a “solution.” Rather, they suggest that engagement in the “creative process” can awaken certain capabilities traditionally ignored in the very highly specialized fields that Crawford abhors, thus contributing society’s apprecation of the functional “generalist” that Crawford hopes to elevate.

    Further READING shows that Ponzio blogged that “While learning specific artistic techniques (such as drawing), students are also taught a complex and unique set of thinking skills that are not routinely taught in other academic classes. The process of art making requires students to engage observational skills which allow them to see beyond stereotypes and recognize exactly what the eye sees as they organize space and form. Skills such as envisioning, inventing, experimenting, reflection, self-criticism, and a willingness to learn from your mistakes are not just valuable skills for future artists, but for all creative leaders in every discipline.”

    Apparently, Ponzio has taught many academically brilliant students (double 800 SAT, future scientists) who were formerly incapable of communicating complex concepts in a visual medium, such as a three dimensional diagram.

    In the book, “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel H. Pink argues that our “Information Age” (an economy which has primarily valued the logical, sequential skills of left brain thinking), is now undergoing a seismic shift to what he calls the “Conceptual Age,” (an economy built on creative, inventive, empathic, right brain skills). “Symphony…is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”— Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind

    Apparently, other thinkers agree:

    “We need people with skills in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and problem solving. We need people who can communicate. We need to enhance the richness and diversity of the workforce, and we need people with the confidence to face the future.” – Accenture Chairman and CEO William D. Green addressing the US Senate Finance Committee.

    “To build a society that is innovative, prosperous, and truly democratic we need to teach next generations not just facts and skills, but how to learn, how to communicate, and how to think creatively, critically, independently.”—Philip Yenawine, Co-Director, Visual Thinking Strategies

    Tomorrow’s Leaders: “Jobs in the new economy…put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos.” – Marc Jacobs, National Center on Education and the Economy

    “Art is Core: For all of history, art has been primary in teaching future generations about who they are. Now it can be used to teach thinking and language skills too.”

    “Because creativity is the driving force of economic growth, in terms of influence the Creative Class has become the dominant class in society. Only by understanding the rise of this new class and its values can we begin to understand the sweeping and seemingly disjointed changes in our society and begin to shape our future more intelligently.”

    -Richard Florida, “The Rise of the Creative Class”

  7. Thanks you Rick Crawford for your thoughtful critique. While I obviously disagree with your sentiment of your reading of the event, there is one part of your comment that I take exception to…

    “And he “teaches art” to his students by having them hang upside down?!”

    Rick, you must try to keep this in mind:
    They are kids! Most of my students, in fact, are high achievers academically. They have big plans and big dreams and pushed extremely hard through our advanced curriculum each day to perform. In many cases, my class might be that one period a day that challenges them in a different way.

    My first mission is to help them realize the absolute fact that if you “Can’t Draw”, then you “Can’t See”. Drawing skill is not a gift from God or a magical power. There are some very simple formulas developed over human history that artists employ to translate exactly what the eye sees onto a two dimensional surface. In fact, it is very mathematical, very logical.

    Case in point: I had a student last year… brilliant kid in math, science. etc., (now attending a prestigious Ivy League school). He put off taking his fine art requirement until the last semester of his senior year, figuring he did not need to waste his precious time with this lightweight crap. He simply was too busy learning the “real” subjects. He came in to class clearly with this attitude. Once we got started, (I always begin by teaching them how to see… Oh they usually think they can see, until I prove to them that we physically see as if through a distorted bubble… it’s true!). Once confronted with this bit of information, he began to sit up a little straighter and pay more attention. Maybe there was some valuable content here after all?! After a couple of weeks the , “I just can’t Draw” excuse began to melt away. Drawing is simply seeing… but he could not see that! Once the reality of how we see is revealed, they realize that they have been stereotyping what they “think” they see when attempting to draw before. Brain Games. As they learn and practice a couple of simple formulas… “Kazaam”! They can draw!

    I wish I had him in classes earlier in his academic career as we could have then gone a lot further into more creative exercises… the real essential skill for any potential engineer, doncha think?

    But being able to draw is not Art. “Now that you have these skills, what are you going to do with them?” Art is Invention. Invention is difficult, you must take chances, it takes guts… It takes failure… something they often fear. THAT is Art and that is not easy to take for some who are used to simply studying the right (left)answers. Creativity is what we practice in Art class. Sometimes it takes hanging them upside down for an afternoon to help them see things differently.

    Hanging students upside down for a class period is specifically meant to challenge them physically, conceptually, emotionally and creatively. Above all, you must remember… THEY ARE JUST KIDS! Sometimes a good point can be made through a silly exercise and a hearty laugh. Art is one of those subjects that lends itself to taking those potentially valuable detours. And hey, if my silly methods don’t reach some students in the way I had hoped, they still might have a fun, memorable moment that broke up their busy, busy day!

    Cheers, PONZ

  8. Helen Rucarean says:

    Welcome back Ponz,

    Oak Hall students are luckey to have an art instructor who thinks outside the box. My Grandsons are fornuate to have you at OH and as a senior I am even luckier to have met you. Never to late to “SEE”
    HANG IN THERE PONZ, By the way did you puck?

    Love and Laughter Wheels

  9. Re my initial 12/8 Comment above …
    After 22 years deploring the “fast-twitch” bias of internet culture, I’ve finally earned my very own flame war. Ah, the “pride of ownership” ;-)

    I read Pink’s Wired article, skimmed Pink’s webpage, and googled his book. Then I read Ponzio’s (Dec.) blog. Then I blew up, badly mis-communicating the issues, and mis-targeting emotional shrapnel at a symptom of the problems, not their causes.

    “Crap” was shorthand for, “I have too much anger and too little time to adequately communicate crucial and complex issues.” That’s now been proven.

    Where there’s heat, I hope to add light: There are important issues surrounding this topic, and I want to generate useful work for social change. So where is it? I’m building a new webpage for those topics, but time is passing. I hope it will be (barely) “ready for primetime” soon. When it is, I’ll post a more detailed Comment here.

    In the interim, please see my old Prelude to an Apology (on Robert Ponzio’s blog). That thread with Ponzio includes a brief sketch of 1 of the issues that fueled my emotional detonation — namely “Perception Management” vs. Reality and Risk.

    It’s about our “Culture of Science” — how failure of Risk Communication can cause catastrophe. Joe Romm is correct that scientists must learn to communicate more persuasively with the public. But that’s not sufficient: Many obstacles to successful “Risk Communication” are inherent in the design of the Receiver’s cognitive architecture, not transient flaws in the Sender’s persuasiveness.

    Physicist Richard Feynman investigated the Challenger disaster. His report documents that “Receiver failures” are not limited to the public, but even hamper scientists, in some situations. Specifically, NASA’s highly-educated Space-Scientist-Managers led themselves to believe a faith-based “Technological Fix” fantasy — that the risks of a Space Shuttle disaster were 1000X lower than what their Space-Scientist-Engineers insisted was the risk — in Reality.

    Like Feynman, I believe motivational bias in NASA’s managerial culture prevented them from accepting accurate Risk Communication from NASA’s engineers. Perhaps the NASA case study offers lessons to help us better understand — and overcome — the resistance to Risk Communication about climate change by 81% of Republican college graduates.
    (Research on “motivated cognition” might offer climate activists a helpful framework for examining this issue: E.g, see “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” and “Where the motivation resides and self-deception hides: How motivated cognition accomplishes self-deception”, and the work of
    Emily Balcetis

    Feynman concluded his report with this sentence:
    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence
    over public relations
    , for nature cannot be fooled.”
    Kinda like our situation with climate change!

    PS to Rebecca: Thanks for caring enough to clarify some of my previous miscommunication. But there are several big issues here, and to cover them will require still more work. Please stay tuned …