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Melissa Dykhuis
 on January 09, 2023

The Synergy of Science and Creativity

For author and astronomer Melissa Dykhuis, art and science have been working together since the beginning of time, and God's good creation is evidence of this.

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artful mosaic of nightsky of stars and the moon

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

One day in late October 2014, I stepped into the atrium of the Gerard P. Kuiper Space Sciences building on the University of Arizona’s campus, the same way I had stepped into the atrium every weekday of grad school for months and years. But that day, my breath caught. My feet slowed. My neck craned as my head tilted back to take it all in.

Everywhere around me, from the polished floors to the soaring five-story ceiling above, I saw artwork. Sculpture pieces, murals, glass blowings, ceramic tiles, canvases, even computer screens filled with data visualizations. A delicate metal solar system glittered as its orbs spun in seamless dance on a tiny turntable. Light background music imagined the sweeping grandeur of space, then shifted to give musical voice to data patterns both whimsical and methodical. It was breathtaking; it was inspiring; it was “The Art of Planetary Science.”

The year before, fellow graduate students Jamie Molaro and James Keane had turned a shared dream into reality: they invited scientists and artists to chase the inspiration found in the natural world to create art that would bring our two worlds together. The department-wide art exhibit that resulted became known as “The Art of Planetary Science.” At the time of this writing, it is now in its tenth year and attracting submissions from over 100 artists yearly, drawing hundreds of visitors to that same atrium where I once stood in awe years ago.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the interplay of science and artistic expression. When I look back on my years in grad school, I realize that those two had been stirring inside me for decades, jostling each other like twins in a womb longing for life’s spotlight. I remember that October afternoon as a key moment on my journey to discover, in myself and my faith and my world, the synergy of science and creativity.

Space and night full of stars seen in distant view of water and tree on a planet

istockphoto.com/quickshooting

As a scientist and a person of faith, I see science and creativity as working together since the dawn of time. In the beginning, planets spun from divine fingertips…Science set about strategizing the perfect orbital distance for a watery world full of potential… and creativity busied itself filling that world with a mind-blowing array of vibrant life.

Melissa Dykhuis

Join the dance

As a scientist and a person of faith, I see science and creativity as working together since the dawn of time. In the beginning, planets spun from divine fingertips… and then found their T2a3 grooves, nestled in the laws of physics. Science set about strategizing the perfect orbital distance for a watery world full of potential… and creativity busied itself filling that world with a mind-blowing array of vibrant life. Imagination painted stripes on the zebra, sketched the fringed headdress of the adorable axolotl, and wove the patterns of webs within the tiny brain of the spider… and science, with its patience and practicality, set the stage for their eventual emergence among Earth’s fauna. And then God wove both science and creativity into God’s own image in human flesh and called it—and us—very good.

What if…? is the fundamental question at the heart of every scientist and creative alike. We chase our curiosity as an invitation to wonder, which becomes for us a window into the shared space between humanity and divinity. What if this lump of clay could be something more? What if we’re not alone in the universe? What if the world within is as vast and intricate as the world without? And so we mix and blend and weave and measure and count and separate and name the cosmos around us, following the invitation of our Creator and our own simple but profound curiosity. 

What if…? is the fundamental question at the heart of every scientist and creative alike. We chase our curiosity as an invitation to wonder, which becomes for us a window into the shared space between humanity and divinity.

As every scientist and artist knows, to study and create is to join the dance of predictable patterns and unexpected discoveries. Just when you think you have the rhythm of the data down, the song changes. The light from the asteroid dims ever so slightly for a few minutes, revealing the presence of a hidden orbiting moon. A splash of misplaced paint on canvas becomes the happiest of artistic accidents. Time after time, we set out to discover or create one thing and end up with a thing completely unexpected, an invitation for us to rejoin the dance.

Look at the world through the eyes of a creative or a scientist, and you will never see it the same. Ordinary sunlight pushes on asteroids, gently adjusting their orbits outward or inward over millions and billions of years. Now—I challenge you—go stand in the sun and see if it feels the same! Or mix the perfect hues to paint the swirls of a sunset over Lake Michigan, and then catch yourself admiring the dance of the light on the waves as if you’d never seen such beauty. Observe and create in this world, and I promise you’ll see it in a way you hadn’t before.

Painting of Phobus, the moon of mars by the author

“Phobos,” acrylic on canvas by author, Honorable Mention at “The Art of Planetary Science” art show, October 2014

Look at the world through the eyes of a creative or a scientist, and you will never see it the same…Observe and create in this world, and I promise you’ll see it in a way you hadn’t before.

Melissa Dykhuis

Science, or fiction?

As a young student, I used to think I had to choose between my science and my creative pursuits, particularly my fiction writing. I forced myself to compartmentalize the two, at first setting aside the one to follow the other, then gradually stealing more and more time from the other to nurse the one in secret. I would sit in those classrooms just beyond the atrium walls in the Kuiper building pretending to listen to the class lectures while dreaming up plots and scenes for the books I would write and rewrite someday. And yet still I figured I couldn’t fit both in my life, not if I wanted to succeed in my academic pursuits.

But I had forgotten that it was science fiction that whispered to me that first What if? What if I studied the worlds beyond and found something new, something so wild it would be one for the epics? Could I tell the stories of the stars? Over time, the answer has become for me a slow but resounding yes.

That same year as my first participation in “The Art of Planetary Science,” I had the chance to lead the education and public outreach team of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission to create 321Science!, a series of animated fast-draw videos describing the mission’s science objectives for the general public. Inspired by the creativity of YouTube channels such as AsapSCIENCE and MinutePhysics, we tackled mission science questions such as “What are asteroids made of?” and “What is the scale of the universe?” with hand-drawn doodles via colored markers on a whiteboard. Thanks to the ingenuity and humor of my team of fellow grad, college and high school students, I began to realize that science and creativity could co-exist in my own life and future.

To deny either of my gifts of intellect or creativity was to deny pieces of my imago dei, as the image of a God who is big enough to hold both. To bring the two together and embrace what both have to offer has been for me an exploration of the very nature of God…

I now believe that the scientists who know how to tell stories are the ones who can inspire us to awe. The unknown is full of its myriad thrills, but each discovery needs context, emotion, or even whiteboard-marker-doodled drama in order to invite us to follow. Likewise, we all need the siren songs of art and story to inspire us to plumb discovery’s true depths, in science and creativity both.

And so what about you—scientist, creative, human— What will you create? What will you explore? What piques your curiosity, ignites your wonder? The invitation is within and all around, to join the dance, sweep the skies, plumb the depths, and share in the synergy of science and creativity. 

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About the author

Melissa Dykhuis

Melissa Dykhuis, Ph.D., lives under the stars along the Colorado Front Range with her husband and two sons on land that traditionally belongs to the Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Ute and Sioux people groups. She studied astronomy in her backyard with binoculars for six years before earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI, then earned her Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona in 2015. She now enjoys writing, music, artistic roller skating, and collaborating on asteroid research projects with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO. She published her debut fiction novel, Skate Cute, in May 2022, under the pen name of Melissa J. Roche, telling the sweet romance story of an astronomy grad student who finds unexpected love on her neighborhood skating rink.