Cultivating ArtScience Collaborations That Generate Innovations for Improving The State of the World

Todd Siler and Geoffrey Ozin


“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Albert Einstein wisely noted. He could have been describing the subtle relationship between the intangible and tangible things that count in making any creative collaboration a success.

Commonsense tells us there are human factors, or intangible things (character, personality, “personal chemistry,” ambition, inspired sense of purpose, knowledge, imagination, curiosity, teamwork) that really counttoward achieving the desirable tangible things of a great collaboration (outstanding outcomes with measurable results).

In exceptional creative collaborations, it’s easy to spot some wholesome habits of mind and behaviors that help enhance our understanding of one another: an openness to learn; a willingness to question what one knows or aims to know; everyday curiosity, wonder and creativity; a sensitivity to other people’s views, visions and approaches to innovation; and, equally important, the essential commitment to work together in creating, sharing, and applying new knowledge to achieve a goal – one they’ve all chosen to pursue as gung-ho collaborators. None of these obvious things are obvious.

Creative collaborations work best when individuals share more than a common vision: they also share their mutual respect, trust and values (Buckman, 2004). The individuals engaged in these collaborations tend to constantly search for connections and common ground to cohere the complementary perspectives and practices we commonly associate with the arts and sciences. This ongoing connection making helps a collaboration continually flow like a Springtime mountain stream. Never mind whether it works as efficiently as the Six Sigma big business management strategy that Motorola implemented in the mid-1980s and that Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, popularized in the mid-1990s (Tennant, 2001), the point is: To flow! (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990)

Collaborations Can Either Elevate Or Flatten Creativity

Today, collaborations of all kinds and scales power innovation in every field and industry. The most adventurous and complex ones combine a wealth of tools, techniques and innovative methods of creative inquiry, visualization and communication that draw from the intertwine histories of art-science-technology. Many integrate these resources as a form of “ArtScience” practice, uniting the aesthetic sensibilities and intellectual skills, which encompasses everything from engineering, mathematics, technology, business, and other fields of applied human knowledge (Siler, 2011)

ArtScience collaborations aim to transcend common practices of compartmentalizing knowledge. They tend to catalyze innovations grown from cross-pollinating the processes and products of one field with another. Case in point: the pioneering work in Nanochemistry of Geoffrey Alan Ozin and his international team of innovative, entrepreneurial nanoscientists and nanotechnologists. Their groundbreaking work over four decades includes the ingenious chemical synthesis of complex objects whose structure, property, function, and utility were inspired by Nature. Their novel creations not only mimic biological matter and mechanisms, they do so at the nanoscale (Ozin et al, 2009), where “size really matters” in remarkable ways.

Diagram of Scale Relations (Ozin, 2009)

In unprecedented ways, these nanoscientists have studied what Nature makes and what we can make of Nature. In the process, they’re re-creating Nature to the benefit of humankind, while contributing to the invention of a sustainable future. This work entails generating and developing practical innovations that help improve the state of the world. It’s a big feat that’s, paradoxically, built on precise manipulations of atomic matter configured into miniscule machines of sorts.

The collaborative endeavor spotlighted in this paper offers one example of two lifelong practitioners in the ArtScience process (Siler, 1990) who have come together to help realize innovations in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology that can meet our urgent global challenges (Ozin et al., 2009). These two fields of human knowledge are transforming today’s world, as they manipulate matter on an atomic and molecular scale, producing the tiniest human-made functional structures and systems ever conceived. These systems are designed to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of everything from solar cells to fuel cells to computer technology to batteries to bioengineering systems with nanomaterials that fight cancers.

And that’s just a cursory list of the field-at-a-glance. An expanded list would include a wide array of industries from A to Z involving Nanotechnology, such as: Automobile industries; Aviation and Aeronautics industries; Building Supplies and Construction Systems; Chemical Engineering, Computer Engineering systems, Diagnostics, Electronics, Environment & Ecology Technologies (Air, Water, Waste Management, Hazardous Waste, Recycling systems, Renewable Energies); Food Processing systems; Materials Manufacturing; Medicine and Pharmaceuticals; Military Applications for Defense Technology; Safety Engineering and Security systems, to name some.

Overcoming Conceptual Obstacles To Rise Above Roadblocks

It’s been challenging planning how to best present our ArtNano Innovations not as Art for Art’s sake, or Science for Science’s sake, or Art for Science’s sake and vice versa. But rather, ArtScience for Civil Society’s sake, so to speak. That’s the steepest challenge: presenting this artwork to general and specific audiences in such a manner that it conveys how this exploding field of scientific and technological innovations is growing in dizzyingly rapid ways.

When we consider the changing “tastes and appetite” of our audiences for either the arts or sciences, or both, things get seriously complicated. I caught myself virtually weighing and balancing the ratio of artistic and scientific contents of our proposed exhibition. I’d shoot these sorts of open-ended questions to Geoff and trust he’d have a wiser response than I had:

Initially, I was concerned that audiences would be overwhelmed by the abundant scientific literature on this subject; it’s pretty intimidating. It felt like the technically dense science was a conceptual “barrier to entry” for general audiences, bogging down people’s spontaneous experience of the fine art. I had these dreadful flashes of Geoff and I being chased by a lynch mob of art critics-at-large and “hanged” for reaching too high-and-wide in our ambitions.

I anxiously thought: Maybe we should just zero-in on one tiny, but compelling, detail of Nanoscience that I could artistically translate well in various mediums. At least, for starters.

One forecaster of high-technology markets, Lawrence Gasman, who wrote in his blog, expressed a similar sentiment: “Samuel Johnson once noted that the prospect of hanging “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Assuming Johnson was correct, writing a book on nanotechnology must be the next best thing to a good hanging. That’s my experience anyway” (

Personally speaking, the biggest roadblock to our collaboration has been logistical rather than intellectual or informational. Finding the time to fully focus on a plethora of challenges that interest me has been far more challenging than envisioning Nano-solutions to urgent global/local challenges. Naturally, Geoffrey’s account of his experiences differs from mine, as he’s amassed so much wisdom from working internationally with his community of colleagues.

Perhaps, the most difficult issue we’re grappling with is journeying into this new frontier of knowledge with no funds, no timeframe and no team other than us two co-founders of ArtNano Innovations. Fortunately, even though we started cutting our own path to discovery with these obstacles, none have curbed our enthusiasm for this project! And that reality bears a message of optimism worth heralding. It demonstrates that even when collaborators aren’t following a carefully defined goal with a picture-perfect path to accomplishing it—even when they don’t have all the means or time to do it—their collaboration can still triumph. We need only look toward the adventuresome work of the visionary composer Philip Glass and the theatrical producer and director Robert Wilson whose production of their 1976 experimental opera “Einstein on the Beach” defied all the odds of success.

What does this avant-garde performance art have in common with ArtNano Innovations? Everything. That is, if you believe in this universal view: “Everything is connected.” And I do, as does Geoffrey. I try to embody this worldview in my art, just as he does in his science.

Our ArtScience collaboration interprets how Nanoscience draws insights and inspirations from Nature. It investigates how Nature connects everything it creates on all scales: from the smallest structures in the universe to the largest imaginable to the human brain and creativity (Siler, 2012), which enables us all to see, discover, understand and wonder about these natural connections that “link the small and large, the local and global” (Ozin, 2012).

The artworks featured in the ArtNano Innovations intimate why and how there is no limit to the potential applications of these advanced technological innovations and the endless creative collaborations it will take to realize them aided by the arts. This project highlights the many ways in which the arts help enable the realization and responsible applications of these innovations.

Determining How To Present Real/Virtual ArtNano Innovations

Before collaborating with Geoffrey Ozin, my spectrum of exemplary, modern ArtScience collaborations was “limited.” It only included everything from the creation of unprecedented technological innovations (The MIT Radiation Laboratory, 1991) to breakthrough filmmaking at DisneyPixar (Bennis & Biederman, 1997), from 3-D cinematography and computer-simulations populated by synthetic actors such as those in James Cameron’s visionary film Avatar (Corliss, 2012) to sensational international SkyArt Events conceived and composed by the pioneer environmental artist Otto Piene (Glibota, 2011)—not to mention a few thousand other brilliant examples that can easily humble any innovator’s ego and accomplishments!

This assortment of examples bears evidence of one overarching pattern of creativity that fits these two interrelated terms and practices: transdisciplinary thinking and integrative thinking. Essentially, these best practices of creative & critical thinking underlie the ArtScience process of connection-making, discovery, invention and innovation (Siler, 2011; Root-Bernstein et al, 2011).

“One of the hallmarks of nanoscience is its interdisciplinary nature—its practice requires chemists, physicists, materials scientists, engineers and biologists to work together in close-knit teams,” write Geoffrey Ozin, Andre Arsenault and Ludovico Cademartiri, co-authors of Nanochemistry:

A Chemical Approach to Nanomaterials. (2009). “Communication and collaboration between disciplines will enable these teams to tackle the most challenging scientific problems, those that are most pressing in the successful exploitation of nanotechnology.” Note that Nanotechnology is currently “touted as the engine of that will drive the next industrial revolution.” That’s no hyperbole.

Highlights of Our Learnings

The following notes serve to point out some inspiring moments of peak awareness when two collaborators transcended their individual differences to create a synthesis of sensibilities, information and vision. By “accentuating the positive” points—recalling the beautiful tune by Bing Crosby, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” which ithe “key to happiness”—I mean to contrast these notes with the many negative experiences collaborators may have when any one of the Five Challenges are not addressed. Or, they’re conveniently overlooked.

Geoffrey recently summed up his excitement for our collaboration by saying he sees “Science transformed into art.” Which is inspiring. Complementing his perspective, I see Art transforming science. And when they flow together, they create ArtScience transformations that reveal, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “the science of art and art of science.”

Building on this reference to the Italian Renaissance: The Italian word “chiaroscuro” evokes the complementary interactions Geoffrey and I experience collaborating. As we move from light to dark (from the known to the unknown) and from dark to light, we envision how our ArtNano Innovations could be presented as a variety of aesthetic experiences; each experience could emphasize one way we can re-create Nature to invent a sustainable future.

Early on in our collaboration, Geoffrey related his ideas for a new Periodic Table of Nanomaterials that he had invented, its novel 3D form fascinated me. It was unlike any periodic system I’d ever seen when exploring the many variations of Dimitri Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of chemical elements. Geoff envisions creating an infinity of nanomaterials by combining four basic building elements: nanocrystals, nanowires, nanotubes, and nanosheets, as shown here:

Geoff wondered why I was pushing him so hard to fully render a 2D picture or 3D model of what his periodic table might look like. He was envisioning something as unique as Watson-Crick-Franklin’s DNA model revealing the four “building blocks of life,” and I was simply curious to see what he had in mind. It was the only way I could grasp what he was seeing in his mind’s eye. That clarifying visualization he created in response to this persistent inquiry helped me begin to understand the nanoconcepts and principles, and the complexities of endlessly combining the basic building blocks of nanomaterials.

Just as important as believing in the creative potential of your collaborators is seeing an openness to new ideas. Indeed, an open mind can open minds and expand them almost instantaneously. Conversely, a closed-mind can have the reverse effect. In fact, nothing flattens the joy of creative inquiry in the arts and sciences than working with closed-minds. I’ve seen collaborations that seemed on the surface buoyant until they sailed into an unexpected squall only to capsize and never recover. When I later did a sort of forensic analysis on what sunk the collaboration, one or more of the collaborators had closed their minds and stopped adventuring.

Five Challenges of Human Communication That Impact Collaborations

This initial list of challenges is offered as a Reality Check. Without addressing these basic challenges, individuals, teams, groups, and organizations will likely encounter countless obstacles and roadblocks. Of course, serendipity and wild dumb luck supersede everything earmarked here!

Even though these observations and comments focus on the challenges we’ve faced in developing our ArtNano Innovations project, they can be generalized to other collaborative enterprises involving all forms and functions of innovation. By and large, the real success hinges on continually improving human communication by fostering understanding:

1. Understanding the collaborator’s aspirations and expectations for the project.

Like many spontaneous collaborations, this one just leaped into our lives and rapidly grew—in a self-organizing process—into this relatively unstructured and freewheeling idea-generation fest. And there’s a positive life lesson in that, too: It’s not always possible to “plan the work and work the plan,” to echo that anonymous, idealized directive in business strategic planning.

Our collaboration occurred without any initial planning. In fact, it grew from a series of informal conversations and Skype chats over a period of a few months, sparked by a most unusual awards ceremony at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, organized by the World Cultural Council (

Before attending this magical event, neither Geoffrey nor I had intended to experiment in merging our professional concentrations. That simply happened. Naturally. Organically. Effortlessly. This intention started to crystallize over breakfast, following an impromptu interview the evening before with Marju Unt, Director of Estonian Euromanagement Institute, and some of her colleagues who were scoping out a program on Art & Science ( We realized we share this mutual passion for advancing innovations that can benefit humankind by posing solutions to our global challenges. Where Geoffrey aspires to actualize the “NanoAdvantage” (Ozin et al., 2009), I aspire to create or develop new art-science-technological innovations to this end.

2. Understanding the collaborators’ sense of what is possible or not in the area of concentration depends on the knowledge base of the collaborators.

When collaborators from diverse fields first come together to work on a project, there are some basic questions to entertain in an informal way that can help them quickly assess one’s depth of knowledge and imagination. Given that I was a beginner student of Nanoscience, I had roughly forty years of knowledge to catch up on asap, before I could pose any original, thought-provoking question that was meaningful to my mentor.

Of course, the thrill of learning doesn’t get any better than having one of the brilliant pioneers in the field of Nanochemistry teach you using his co-authored textbooks that detail his team’s empirical research. This one-on-one guidance certainly sustained my enthusiasm, as I learned the key nanoconcepts that concern, in the parlance of Ozin and his colleagues, the “Materials Staircase” (Synthesis, Structure, Property, Function, Utility) leading to-and-from the “Nanomaterials Staircase” (Size, Shape, Surface, Defects, Self-Assembly, Nanotech).

Without laboring to learn the basics, I would not have been able to glean Geoffrey’s challenges. Nor would I be able to offer any insightful questions that we could explore together.

3. Understanding your shared goal

From the beginning, Geoffrey’s goal was to use the arts to help communicate his inspired vision of what he and his colleagues refer to as the “NanoAdvantage.” By utilizing various arts-based mediums, including traditional fine arts, new media, art installations and performance art, Ozin aims to engage specific and general audiences worldwide in his thought-provoking public presentations that highlight the evolution and growth of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. We plan to make a selection of his lectures on the NanoWorld and the NanoAdvantage available.

“One can experience the NanoAdvantage for example over the entire platform of material energy systems, where they may be engineered for solar cells, fuel cells, batteries, supercapacitors, thermoelectrics, piezoelectrics; and where the enhanced performance relative to their macroscopic counterparts always goes to one-and-the-same ‘heart of the matter,’ the NanoAdvantage” (Ozin, 2011 & 2012).

My goal was to help Geoff accomplish his goal with the aid of the arts. Beyond that, I wanted to experiment with the various nanomaterials in my artworks—in particular, the photonic structural colors (Ozin et al., 2009).  I love experimenting with new materials as it often yields many “aesthetic accidents” and discoveries. Moreover, I wanted to work my deepest passion for human neuroscience into our project, because that was most important to me. Actually, it’s the hallmark of my artwork and the center of my research for decades: connecting everything human-made to the hidden work of our minds and the brains that shape our creations.

It’s important to me that our audiences do not have to immediately understand the science to embrace the art. That deeper understanding and appreciation comes naturally, as viewers learn to seek-and-see in the art the scientific concepts embedded in it. Here, science isn’t explained or illustrated. Instead, it’s experienced and interpreted as myriad forms of art. Anyone with an open-mind and curiosity can grasp the beauty of wonder and wonder of beauty expressed in the nature-inspired ArtNano innovations. Anyone can experience seeing these artworks beyond categories, and experiment with their countless everyday applications for enriching our lives.

4. Understanding what the Work of Art and Work of Science mean to you.

One process of innovation and creative inquiry I’ve been experimenting with since the mid-1970s involves playing with various interpretations of formal works of “Art” and works of “Science” that were characterized as such, I would either add scientific information to the artwork, or subtract information from the sciencework. The net effect was always aesthetically startling and refreshing! The art became science, and the science became art.

Some 36 years later, I find I’m still absorbed by that fundamental transformation of information (data, knowledge, ideas, concepts, events, etc.). It delights me to see how central this transformation is to the phenomena we call “aesthetic experience,” in which all sorts of natural ambiguities arise that can’t be explained away or described with words and numbers alone. As the mind gropes to grasp what it’s experiencing, there are so many “simple pleasures” to enjoy. More often than not, these experiences inspire us to dream and imagine endless possibilities.

In my practice of art making, anything goes because imagination goes with everything! Art is not only what you make, it’s what you make of it, too. That same truth holds for those who are open to experiencing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in this open-minded manner. When we allow our imagination to experience things without categories, compartments, and limits, we’re able to discover how Art, or A.r.t., encompasses All representations of thought. It’s the sum of human knowledge, endeavors and experiences. It embodies everything that human beings can and do connect with, as we link Art to the whole of Life-Reality-Nature.

ArtNano Innovations invites viewers to experience those unpredictable, “aesthetic accidents” that underscore most original discoveries. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the 1937 Noble Prize-winner in Physiology or Medicine, once noted: “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” The art here aims to prepare our minds for that unexpected encounter with discovery.

As I discussed with Geoffrey at the outset, I wasn’t interested in making a show-and-tell style Science Fair out of our creations. We agreed to create unique “aesthetic experiences” that may not resemble the explicit scientific visualizations we’re familiar with. Moreover, the art aims to integrate the compartmentalized worlds of Nanoscience and Neuroscience, among other areas of physical sciences It explores the possibilities of a unified field of knowledge that is quint-essential to human development and the advancement of science-technology-engineering-mathematics and civil society.

Many of my artworks consider unique perspectives on Nanoscientific challenges as seen in the broader context of human/nature relations. They evoke these natural linkages between the Nano-Neuro-World of interrelated forms and processes (Siler, 1990). ArtNano Innovations recognizes the connections between Neuroscience and Nanoscience, highlighting the hidden handiwork of the human brain that is often left out of our big picture interpretations of Nature. Expressed another way: The art embodies nature-inspired ideas, concepts, hypotheses and theories on the creative work of nature and the human imagination that ties everything together in new and purposeful ways.

5. Understanding the different “learning curves” of the collaborators.

There’s always a learning curve in any collaboration, which affects the speed of development and realization of the project. Regardless of how knowledgeable, wise, intuitive, or experienced a collaborator is, it takes some time to learn new concepts and process their implications, and then act on this knowledge intelligently with strategic and tactical plans. I would extend this observation to our audiences, as well. This remains a huge obstacle to any casual viewer’s appreciation of these ArtScience productions: grasping the “artistic” dimensions of science, and the “scientific” dimensions of art. Also, there are plenty of curves in the way we try to grasp things by surmising what they look-and-feel like or mean, judging from our limited interactions with them.

I found it was time well spent mulling over the core concepts and principles rendered in Geoffrey’s textbooks, just as he delved into learning about my exploratory artwork. It took me awhile for this counterintuitive reality to really sink in: “There are no new nanomaterials. Rather, they are just reconstructed forms of known materials [from the Periodic Table of Elements], which can be sculpted at the nanoscale,“ as Geoff has written. “All the atomic compositions and atomic arrangements of the materials are known. But it is their physical size and shape and accessible surface properties plus their self-assembly into purposeful higher tier ‘panomaterials’ with structural features formed over multiple length scales, from nanometers to millimeters to centimeters to meters and beyond that creates, for example, the NanoAdvantage as intimated by this work of ArtNano Innovations” (Ozin, 2011).


We all have our own questions that we’d like to answer because they engage us in personally meaningful ways. I’m sure the questions that absorbed me are not necessarily the same ones that Geoff dwells on professionally and has challenged his research team to respond to in great detail. For instance, I cannot explain why I’m interested in exploring these kinds of basic questions:

  • What natural and/or artificial forces make all nanomaterials self-organize? Is there one general or overarching pattern for self-organizing nanowires? Is that pattern of growth similar to what may be observed in nanocrystals, nanotubes and nanosheets, as well?
  • Are there archetypal patterns to the growth of all nanomaterials?
  • Do all nanomaterials self-organize the same way, whether they’re crystals, wires, tubes or sheets?
  • Do different types of nanowires self-organize at different rates of growth.

By contrast, Geoffrey and his colleagues are currently tackling these big issues:

  • How do abiological chemically powered nanomotors work?
  • What is the origin of motion in these particular nanomotors?
  • How do we fully represent nanoscale hydrodynamics theory?
  • How do the size, shape and surface of a nanomotor, solvent viscosity and temperature, control the velocity and ultimate speed limit?
  • How do we control the direction of nanomotors: chemotaxy, magnetic, electric, optical fields or other means?
  • How do we get nanomachines to work purposeful and reliably?
  • What jobs (e.g., cargo pickup, delivery and drop off) do we want nanovehicles to carry out?
  • What tasks, such as seek and destroy tumors, environmental sensing, medical diagnostics, pollution control do we want them to perform?
  • What is next – perfect size and shape and surface to get perfect control of nano locomotion?
  • How can we use a non-toxic fuel, water, to power nanomotors?
  • What are the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of swarming, or collective motions and cooperative interactions?
  • How does swarming occur? Like bacteria swarms and related biological systems? Are they communicating through chemical signals vis-a-vis concentration gradients?

As Geoffrey re-draws my attention to his challenges, he knows me well enough now to know that I just don’t want to be a science “visualizer” of physical phenomena—infusing fresh perspectives in mostly illustrative scientific visualizations of Nanotechnology. I aspire to go much deeper into this subject matter and actually contribute to the design and development of Nanotechnology. Naturally, this aspiration requires me to rigorously study these innovations, in order to understand their design principles and general dynamics:

Finally, if it were possible to create “perfect” human communication and understanding, anyone could understand everyone at any given time. Every human being would possess the capability of grasping the ideas, insights, knowledge, and experiences of our fellow human beings by virtue of some neuropsychological “black box” translator/ communicator: a nanotech tool designed to help anyone make sense of anything (data, information, knowledge, concepts, theories, etc.). I’m sure the visionary Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, who dreamed of operationalizing telepathy, envisioned the possibilities of such infinitely versatile and practical tools. Fortunately, Tesla wasn’t the only futurist innovator thinking of a technological solution to helping human beings understand one another better and communicate perfectly. Google’s language translator is getting mighty smart and sophisticated about this too, as advancements in Internet inference and search engines leverage the semantic engines that make sense of seemingly random “unstructured data on the World Wide Web” (

Clearly, we don’t live in anything close to an ideal world of human communication. If we did, I’m inclined to believe it would be considerably more harmonious. Simply, everyone would be a lifelong learner. And creative learning would be as easy as breathing, which we’re hardly aware of it until we stop to appreciate it in a flash of higher awareness.

Working with Geoff Ozin is as close to having an ingenious translator of all things art into science and all things science into art as I’ve experienced in only the rarest of occasions. This inspiring collaboration points to ways we can transfer our key learnings into some intuitive tech tools that can leverage the best of our collective thinking on innovation. As Geoffrey and I learned, it’s important to reflect on upbeat scenarios of a better world in which we realize human/nature’s potential, as we cautiously reason: If Nature can do it, humans can, too; if it exists, it can be synthesized.



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