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Mixing Art, Science Leads to Innovation for McCormick Dean

April 2, 2008 | by Megan Fellman
When Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, developed his well-known theory on chaos and mixing, he didn't start with experiments and equations -- he began by creating a painting.

That inspiration -- the combination of both artistic and scientific techniques for innovation -- is the hallmark of an "artscientist," the term author and Harvard University professor David Edwards uses for Ottino and others who traverse the interface of art and science and are featured in his book "ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation" (Harvard University Press, 2008).

In the book, Edwards highlights the origins of Ottino's creativity through his childhood and upbringing in Argentina. It recounts his first gallery exhibition of paintings and sculptures, his subsequent work combining his passion for both art and science, and how the interrelation between the two led to breakthrough research.

During his exploration of mixing, Ottino painted a watercolor that depicted how he believed fluid mixing worked. He looked at the painting every day as he continued his research. The mixing of art and science led to his discovery of chaotic mixing and folding -- which appeared on the covers of Nature (1988) and Scientific American (1989). His well-known book on the matter, "The Kinematics of Mixing: Stretching, Chaos, and Transport," is illustrated with his art.

Ottino's belief in the importance of the role of art and design in the scientific process is reflected in the continued prominence of design at McCormick. "We see design as a pathway to innovation," said Ottino, who is also a Distinguished Robert R. McCormick Professor and the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

"In many ways engineering can be seen as more of an art than a science. Engineering and art both seek to break paradigms in order to see things that haven't been seen before. They are both more about creation rather than unveiling."

At the core of the book is the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration -- the idea that multiple viewpoints are imperative in the search for solutions to society's greatest problems. "Analysis and creativity should complement one another," said Ottino. "Solving important problems -- such as global health, energy and the environment -- will require strengths in both areas."
Topics: People