Thursday, October 22, 2009

Culture Shock 10.22.09: Gap between art, science no longer so wide

If I'd been better at math in high school, I probably would have become a scientist.

When I was young, I was obsessed with cosmology and paleontology, which is a fancy way of saying I was really into dinosaurs and outer space. While all of my classmates were reading "Where the Wild Things Are," I was reading elementary-level books about biology and astronomy.

I taught myself to spell by memorizing dinosaur names and the nine (now eight) planets of the solar system.

In any case, my math skills were less than stellar, so eventually I gravitated from science geek to art geek. Still, I've tried to maintain something more than a layman's knowledge of science.

The conventional wisdom is that art and science are incompatible ways of looking at the world, separated by a Grand Canyon of misunderstanding, distrust and outright hostility.

Certainly that's the impression one gets from 19th century poet John Keats, who lamented that Isaac Newton had "destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism."

The Romantic movement, to which Keats belonged, was a reaction to the scientific, rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had taken hold in Europe and America a century earlier. Today, in some circles, it's still fashionable to badmouth the Enlightenment, which, besides the scientific method, gave us the Declaration of Independence.

Newton, however, is getting his revenge. Neuroscientists and biologists are increasingly close to having a scientific understanding of why we make art in the first place.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has speculated that some people are capable of creating great art because their brains are better wired than most for metaphorical thinking.

They may have more neural pathways, for example, between the part of the brain used for speech and the part used for identifying color. That could lead to a better ability to make associations between things that don't seem all that related, which is what poets do all the time.

The membrane separating science and art is not quite as impermeable as most people think, and it allows travel in both directions.

Albert Einstein was arguably engaged in artistic thinking when he imagined himself on a beam of light and thereby unlocked the door to a new understanding of space and time. The metaphor came first, the equations later.

More to the point, science could become as much an inspiration to artists as religion and mythology have been.

There is some evidence of that already. John Boswell has begun a project he calls Symphony of Science, online at So far, he has created two music videos spliced together from clips of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and other scientists. It's art for the Information Age, inspired by science.

Who knows? Boswell's work could end up inspiring a new generation of artists. Or even scientists, depending on their math scores.

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