Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

The God of Experiment

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Painting by Katarina Countiss

“There is the initial period of unconscious work dealing with the problem, then a period during which the unconscious mind seems to be active which an appropriate hypothesis strikes thinker with its aesthetic properties much as a good work of art does. Proof has next to be worked out.” -Henri Poincare, quote found in Art and Science By Strosberg, Eliane (Book – 2001)

Excerpt from Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Mlodinow, Leonard (Book – 2003) p.129-131. Leonard Mlodinow writes about his relationship with the renowned Richard Feynman. This is a snippet from one of his recorded conversations. These are Feynman’s words.

I once thought about writing fiction for a little while, myself. Of course I’ve given lectures; that is to say I talked where they’ve been recorded. But that’s an easy way out so at a party at the English department, I asked them, for the fun of it, how I would go about writing fiction, and this man who I respected very dearly, a professor, said “All you have to do is write.”

I got a hold of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I said that can’t be very difficult to write… they can do whatever they want because they have angles, and trolls, and things like that. So they can do what they want, there is all kinds of magic. So I said, “I’m going to make one of these up.”

I could not make anything up but a combination of what I’d read. I felt unfortunately that when I recombined it, that I didn’t have a deeply different plot, some cleverness, something different, some surprise, whereas the next story had some sort of surprise, not like the other stories. It had trolls in it again, but the nature of the plot, the twist was highly different…. And I said, “There’s no more possibilities here.” And then I read the next one and it’s entirely different. So I don’t think I have the kind of imagination to make up a new story very well.

That’s not to say I don’t have a good imagination. In fact, I think it’s much harder to do what a scientist does to figure out or imagine what’s there, than it is to imagine fiction, that is things that aren’t there. To really understand how things work on a small scale, or a large scale, it turns out it’s so different than you expect, it take some hell of a lot of imagination to see it! We need a lot of imagination to picture the atom, to imagine that there are atoms, and how they might be operating. Or to make the Periodic Table of Elements.

But the scientist’s imagination always is different from a writer’s in that it is checked. A scientist imagines something and then God says “incorrect” or “so far so good.” God is the experiment of course, and God might say, “Oh, now that’d doesn’t agree.” You say, “I imagine it works this way. And if it does, then you should see this.” Then other guys look and they don’t see it. That’s too bad. You guessed wrong. You don’t have that in writing.

A writer or artist can imagine something and certainly can be dissatisfied with it artistically, or aesthetically, but that isn’t the same degree of sharpness and absoluteness that the scientist deals with. For the scientist there is this God of Experiment that might say, “That’s pretty, my friend, but it’s not real. That’s a big difference.

Suppose there was some great god of Aesthetics. And then whenever you made a painting,

 No matter how much you liked it, no matter how much it satisfied you, no matter what even if it sometimes didn’t satisfy you, anyway you would submit it to the great God of Aesthetics and the god would say “This is good,” or, “This is bad.” After a while the problem is for you to develop an aesthetic sense that fits with this thing, not just your own personal feelings about it. That is more analogous to the kinds of creativity we have in science.


Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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