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
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