Here is a story of two scientific minds– each dazzled by the mysteries of life, one going on to pursue a career in research and the other in art–that should make you question your ideas about the relationship between science and the humanities.

When my sister was little, she’d literally spend hours each day playing with candle wax. She’d melt the wax, mold it into different shapes as it solidified, and then melt it again. This fascination with forms evolved as she grew up, and she is now a molecular biologist, losing herself in the strange new forms she encounters through the lens of her microscope.

I like to think that my sister and the artist Syaiful A. Garibaldi (aka Tepu) are kindred souls, even though they operate in very different environments.

The young Syaiful grew up on the agricultural periphery of Jakarta, losing himself in the forms of the bountiful nature around him. Despite having parents who were professionals, Syaiful studied agriculture in university, where he, like my sister, began an enduring relationship with the microscope. Playing around with the cells on his Petri dish –just as my sister played with the wax–and observing their reactions to external irritants, he experienced the wonder of the scientist at the new frontiers of human knowledge.

Syaiful explaining Terhah to an audience.

However, like his Indo-Islamic artistic predecessors, Syaiful felt the existing idiom did a poor job of sufficiently expressing his wonder. He thus developed a new idiom, a new language called Terhah (idea). He based the typography for Terhah on the cellular forms found on his Petri dish, and with the thoroughness of a true scientist, even created a dictionary for this new language.

Terhah was the launching point for Syaiful’s artistic career, and he has continued to work with organic forms in his art, notably fungi and bacteria. While these are the building blocks of all life on earth, they also represent death and decay. What are we? What is the nature of life and the end of life? These are questions that were once the exclusive domain of the humanities, the latter now cast aside by the new religion of science.

Thankfully, the weird loopy forms of Syaiful’s alternative, organic universe remind us that the distinction between the humanities and science can be blurry and that they are simply different approaches to answering the same eternal questions.

Trop small with birds nest