Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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Art says “Science” but in a language no one speaks fluently

dna painting by Katarina Countiss

DNA painting by Katarina Countiss

A response to NPR’s article “When Art Meets Science, You’ll Get The Picture” by Nancy Shute.

“Science inspires art. And the art inspires questions.” Pretty cool idea, but I sadly disagree. Art is definitely a way to pique curiosity. It begins when people want to engage in the work. Art has been relegated in this society to a small subsection of society. The artists, visual communicators, are not valued in a way that when people see a painting that they ask themselves the questions that the article says that they would. People are numb to visual information when it is obscured by symbolism and masked in artistic rendering. Essentially, I think that a painting that transforms an idea into a piece of eye-candy destroys the meaning of the scientific work.

It’s not that paintings are inferior to photographs or slick charts, but that in our culture, there have been many movements to take understanding out of art. See the Dada, surrealist, modernist movements. They are not communicating “Scientists have discovered.” They are saying “blue, like you’ve never seen.” I am not going to engage every painting as if they are trying to communicate new discoveries. It’s a combination of text and image that makes the series in the article have power. A painting that “describes” a fact is not inspiring. I’m not going to ask the questions. It’s merely a supplement to the message. We are not skillful decoders of paintings. It’s like dancing about architecture. It might give further insight, but it’s not enough.


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Nabokov, Professional Scientist and Amateur Author

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities By Gould, Stephen Jay (Book – 2003) page 163.


If this first example of the fusions of unum cites a case so intermixed and intermediate that the conventional labels of “art” and “science” lose all mean as distinct modes of inquiry, then a second form of fusion, less intense but far more common, uses the ordinary skills and sensibilities of the “other” side to enhance effective argument in a “home” domain of conventional expertise (often beyond the explicit notice of more parochial practitioners). I have already discussed how such preeminent figures as Charles Lyell and Sigmund Freud advanced their causes by employing an uncommon gift for writing powerful and stylish prose. I only point out that humanists explicitly value good writing as a primary desideratum of their enterprise, whereas most scientists tend to dismiss stylistic matters as essentially irrelevant to their work.)

My favorite example in this second category of unum cites the fascinating case of a great literary figure of the twentieth century (and also more than a merely competent biologist) who followed an important norm of science in his literary work, in full knowledge of what he did, why he so proceeded and how his writing would be enhanced thereby. Nonetheless, nearly all literary critics have failed to understand either the strategy or the reasons (even though the author stated his aims, explicitly and often), and have maintained their stubborn allegiance to a conventional “literary” explanation that the author himself loathed and rejected. An ironic tale indeed, well fit for the full range of lessons, from moral to political.

Vladimir Nabokov worked from 1942 to 1948 as curator of lepidoptery (butterflies and moths) in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, three floors above the office that I have occupied in the same building for thirty-five years. He was a skilled and fully professional specialist on the taxonomy and natural history of the Polyommatini, popularly known as “blues,” and he published several respected technical monographs on this large group of Latin American butterflies. In fact, as his biographers often remark, before 1948, when he began to teach literature at Cornell, Nabokov earned his primary living, and spent most of his time, as a biologist– and he would justly have been labeled as a professional scientist and amateur author.

We can scarcely doubt Nabokov’s love for his first profession as eloquently expressed in a 1945 letter to his sister.

Following the fate of many scientists who spent years in ceaseless scrutiny and drawing of delicate anatomical features under the microscope, Nabokov’s vision became so impaired that he could no longer pursue the detailed work he loved. Yet, and poignantly, he stated in a 1975 interview, long after he had ceased his biological research, that the lure and passion remained as strong as ever:

Since my years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, I have not touched a microscope, knowing if I did, I would drown again in its bright well. Thus I have not, and probably never shall, accomplish the greater part of entrancing research work I had imagined in my young mirages.

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Part of Nabokov’s letter, 1945

Excerpt from The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities By Gould, Stephen Jay (Book – 2003) page 164

My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world… Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose amin task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research… a study of the classification of American “blues” based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under the microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants fo the magic lantern… My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me… To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white area–all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it.

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The Irreconcilable Duality of Body and Soul, Words from Milan Kundera

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Book-1984) by Milan Kundera, page 39-40


It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying “Einmal ist keinmal.” Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach

The first time she went to Tomas’s flat, her insides began to rumble. And no wonder; she had nothing to eat since breakfast but a quick sandwich on the platform before boarding the train. She had concentrated on the daring journey ahead of her and forgotten about food. But when we ignore the body, we are more easily victimized by it. She felt terrible standing there in front of Tomas listening to her belly speak out. She felt like crying. Fortunately, after the first ten seconds Tomas put his arms around her and made her forget her ventral voices.


Tereza was therefore born of a situation which brutally reveals the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.

A long time ago, man would listen in amazement to the sound of regular beats in his chest, never suspecting what they were. He was unable to identify himself with so alien and unfamiliar an object as the body. The body was a cage, and inside that cage was something which looked, listened, feared, thought, and marveled; that something, that remainder let over after the body had been accounted for, was the soul.

Today of course, the body is no longer unfamiliar; we know that the beating in our chest is the heart and that the nose is the nozzle of a hose sticking out of the body to take oxygen to the lungs. The face is nothing but an instrument panel registering all the body mechanisms; digestion, sight, hearing, respiration, thought.

Ever since man has learned to give each part of the body a name, the body has given him less trouble. He also learned that the soul is nothing more than the gray matter of the brain in action. The old duality of body and soul has become shrouded in scientific terminology, and we can laugh at it as merely an obsolete prejudice.

But just make someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble, and the unity of body and soul, that lyrical illusion of the age of science, instantly fades away.


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Metaphors, Words from Brian Eno

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpts from an article “A Big Theory of Culture” by Brian Eno in Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology (Book – 2011) page 57-65

Brian Eno is an electronic musician and producer. Also known for his multifaceted interests outside of music, especially technological.

EDGE: How do you think the arts and science differ?
ENO: If you asked twenty scientists what they thought they were doing, or what they thought the point of science was, I would think that most of them would come up with an answer something like, We want to understand the world, we want to see how the world works. If you asked twenty artists the same question—what you are doing it for, what does art do for us—I guarantee you’d get about fifteen different answers, and the other five would tell you to mind your own business. There is no consensus whatsoever about what art is there for, although some people will say, Well, it’s to make life more beautiful.

Here I am an artist— who reads mostly science books— like most other artists. I know very few artists who read books about art. Why, I ask myself, is there not a conversation of that quality in the arts? Many artists normally are talking about science, they’re not talking about art—there is not a developed language or having a conversation about the arts…

…EDGE: Let’s move on to your ideas about metaphors.
ENO: … Humans actually codify most of their knowledge not in terms of mathematical tables, set of statistics and scientific laws, but in terms of metaphors. Most of the things we normally have to deal with understanding are complex, fuzzy, messy, changing, and in fact poorly delineated. We don’t actually know where the boundaries of them are, let alone whether we are able to make clear questions about them. We spend a lot of our time as ordinary humans navigating through complicated situations with one another that require constant negotiation and constant new attempts to understand.

Science is, of course, one extreme version of this process. Science works by trying to say, Okay, I can separate off this piece of the world form the rest. Effectively, we can say, I’ve separated that off, and then I can make some theories and predictions about it. Science therefore enables us to come up with a structure upon which we can build useful metaphors. This is why artists are interested in science—it’s because science keeps coming up with big ideas, like chaos, like complexity, that we then think, ah, yes, perhaps that’s how a lot of things work. Then we have a new metaphor. We don’t have to fully understand the science that made that metaphor.

A lot of those kinds of metaphors derive from science, but a lot of them derive from literature, poetry, music. We live in a big construction of metaphors—nearly all of our knowledge is rather fuzzy in that sense. One of the things that artists do is invent metaphors, break up metaphors, challenge them, pull them apart, put them together in new orders and so on. One of the things art does is to remind you constantly of this process that you’re most of the time engaged in—the process of metaphor-making.