Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art and science

In the early 1920s, Niels Bohr was struggling to reimagine the structure of matter. Previous generations of physicists had thought the inner space of an atom looked like a miniature solar system with the atomic nucleus as the sun and the whirring electrons as planets in orbit. This was the classical model.

But Bohr had spent time analyzing the radiation emitted by electrons, and he realized that science needed a new metaphor. The behavior of electrons seemed to defy every conventional explanation. As Bohr said, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Ordinary words couldn’t capture the data.

The view of science as the sole mediator of everything depends upon one unstated assumption: While art cycles with the fashions, scientific knowledge is a linear ascent. The history of science is supposed to obey a simple equation: Time plus data equals understanding. One day, we believe, science will solve everything.

But the trajectory of science has proven to be a little more complicated. The more we know about reality—about its quantum mechanics and neural origins—the more palpable its paradoxes become. As Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist and lepidopterist, once put it, “The greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.”

The fundamental point is that modern science has made little progress toward any unified understanding of everything. Our unknowns have not dramatically receded. In many instances, the opposite has happened, so that our most fundamental sciences are bracketed by utter mystery. It’s not that we don’t have all the answers. It’s that we don’t even know the question.

How can the sciences overcome their present limitation? Science needs the arts for that. We need to find a place for the artist within the experimental process, to rediscover what Bohr observed when he looked at those cubist paintings. The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem. It is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. we need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress


Anonymous said...

If not for the great creative thinking of people such as, Isaac Newton, Archimedes, Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein, etc. science would surely not have progressed this far.

Before the science there has to be the spark of inspiration. THAT is the creative mind at work, not the scientist's.

The arts drive most things forward, from social reformation to scientific discovery. NOT the other way around, as the scientists would have us believe.

Artists, of all disciplines, and scientists, need to collaborate more; we need each other. A world based purely on science is a scary thought.

Mariana Soffer said...

Thank you very much for your long reflection.
I agree that you need the spark of inspiration before, but I think the scientist's also forms part of the creative mind, they both do.

I like the idea that art drives most things forward, but I am not sure I agree. I do not understand what art is, and I need to, in order to understand what you think.

But we completely agree on the concussion: artists and scientists should work together.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I should have been clearer. (tired)

Art as I see it is all creative endeavour, whatever form that takes.

I was trying to say that free thinking rather than complete scientific logic paves the way for true discovery.

Uncle Tree said...

Hello, Mariana!

I have been privileged to meet (via the web) a couple of men who believe they have most of the answers to everything. Two of them are authors, the other one wouldn't agree with my assumption. Mainstream science has pretty much ignored their papers. I'm just saying, that even if the truth is out there, it will have a difficult time making it through to the publications of their peers.

Oscar Wilde said, "All art is quite useless." I don't think he would say that about science. I'm not saying that I agree with his deduction, but I believe there is a bit of truth to it. The quote is from The Preface to The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

The greatest science fiction writers of all time have most certainly brought forth a new idea or two that have since become a reality. I think I would pick their brains first, if it were up to me.

Ignorance is bliss.

Knowledge, "...can't get no satisfaction!"

Harmonie22 said...

Interesting post. Although there is such a definitive line drawn between science and art, in many ways I find that science is a form of art in of itself. Okay maybe not in the mainstream way, but science can hit the same 'pleasure zone' that art can.

I loved what you said about scientific evolution being a matter of 'not knowing the questions to ask' so science can go forward. I think quantum physics has the potential to reveal a lot to us, even thought it is based a lot on possibility.

Paul Squires said...

I believe poetry is a more accurate description of the world than science because time is not linear. Science is based on linear causality across time, prose like this is linear. Time is not linear and poetry is how language escapes linearity.

Mariana Soffer said...

Uncle:Very nice comment uncle. You are right about sci-fi, people such
as huxley and verne for example, had amazing ideas/theories.
Knowledge makes thoughts more rigid, and oftentime that rigidity
can become a straitjacket.

Mariana Soffer said...

Harmonie22:Also very intresting post, the line between science and art exsists, but is is blurry, extremelly blurry, as it is the line that divides many other disciplines. In posmodern times areas clear boundaries disapear. I like the famous bodillard example about how politics and porn overlap, when the famous Cicciolina become elected.
You have an alternative option to possibilities, it is called fuzzy
logics, and I think that is what quantum physics talks about. You can check it out
or I will be more than happy to explain it to you.

Mariana Soffer said...

Paul S: Great idea, but the thing is that poetry refers to a specifiec
field that it is pretty distinguishable from science. But it is true they
both share the non-linear time characteristic.

Harmonie22 said...

Baudrillard is awesome. I loved his Similacra discourse, though I'm not familiar with the quote you refer to. I will google 'fuzzy logics,' sounds interesting.

Mariana Soffer said...

I read Baudillard many years ago and it really opened my mind, the book is called "cool memories". The one that is now quoting him all the time is Nicholas Carr, he writes about technology evolution (wrote IT doesn't matter, which is a book I liked) His blog if you are curious is:, here he cites him.

If you do not get the idea of fuzzy Logic let me know and I will find some good material that explains it.

Mayer Spivack said...

What, by whom, where is the artwork of lines, rings and spaces in the image above?

Mariana Soffer said...

Amazing we are in syncro it is the guy I told you to see the artwork, Daniel Joglar. I am impressed.

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