Artists or Scientists?

Flatiron School / 1 August 2013

The following is a guest post by Isaac Rosenberg and originally appeared on his blog. Isaac is currently a summer intern at The Flatiron School and will be entering his senior year of high school this fall. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Are we artists or scientists? That is the question.

I was talking to Stefan Lance about this, and he said he felt conflicted. On the one hand, he loves digging deep into things. He’s done some C before, so he’s been to that low-level programming environment before, circa 1990s. On the other hand, he also likes making things. Where to draw the line is the real question.

I’ve been thinking about this as well, and I feel like we can frame this problem in terms of being an artist or a scientist.


Wikipedia defines a scientist as so:

A scientist, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge. Scientists are also distinct from engineers, those who design, build and maintain devices for particular situations.

Quite a perfect definition. They don’t actually build anything. They just explore and learn about the world around them.

That’s fine. I also love learning. But at the end of the day their discoveries won’t directly impact people. They won’t make people smile. They won’t change people’s lives.

That’s where artists and engineers come in.

Artists & Engineers

From Wikipedia, again:

An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and their subsequent applications to human needs and quality of life. In short, engineers are versatile minds who create links between science, technology, and society.

And art:

The first and broadest [definition] of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to “skill” or “craft.”

Artists and engineers bridge the gap between concepts and people. They build things that help people, not just themselves. They make a true impact on the world, and much, if not all, of what the world is made up of was build by engineers and artists.

I feel like as programmers we stand in between artists and engineers. The programs we create are expressions of our selves, yet they are practical. Programming takes years to master, even though on a syntactical level it is mostly composed of all the same elements.

All programmers are artists. We have built upon years of building and artistry. But in a way, nobody can be a scientist as a programmer. They can explore the low-level mechanics of languages. But those were all built by artists. And the only way to discover new things as programmers is to build them.

So we can’t really classify programming as a science, because it isn’t. There’s nothing we’re really discovering, just building what isn’t there.

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