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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The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

Painting by Katarina Countiss

The Willat Effect – hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

By at 10:46 am Tuesday, Oct 18

After just having read Seth Roberts’ blog post about The Willat Effect (the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things), it was interesting to see 31.

I discovered the Willat Effectwhen my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Via BoingBoing

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A History, Bayles and Orland

Excerpt from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Bayles, David (Book – 1993) page 103.


It is an article of faith, among artists and scientists alike, that at some deep level their disciplines share a common ground. What science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively—that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms of nature. Science does not set out to prove the existence of parabolas or sine curves or pi, yet where phenomena are observed, there they are. Art does not weigh mathematically the outcome of the brushstroke, yet whenever artworks are made, archetypal forms appear. Charles Eames, when asked just how he arrived at the curves in his famous molded plywood chair, was clearly baffled that anyone would ask such a question; finally he just shrugged and replied, “It’s in the nature of the thing.” Some things, regardless of whether they are discovered or invented, simply and assuredly feel right. What is natural and what is beautiful are, in their purest state, indistinguishable. Could you improve upon the Circle?

In the day-to-day world, however, improving the circle is different from, say, improving the wheel. Science advances at the rate that technology provides tools of greater precision, while art advances at the pace that evolution provides minds with greater insight—a pace that is, for better or worse, glacially slow. Thus while the stone tools fashioned by cave dwellers an Ice Age ago are hopelessly primitive by current technological standards, their wall paintings remain as elegant and expressive as any modern art. And while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills, or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.

All that is not meant to cast art and science into some sort of moral footrace, but simply to point out that in art as well as in science—the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. Where the scientist asks what equation would best describe the trajectory of an airborne rock, the artist asks what it would feel like to throw one.

“The main thing to keep in mind,” as Douglas Hofstadter noted, “is that science is about classes of events, not particular instances.” Art is just the opposite. Art deals in any one particular rock, with its welcome vagaries, its peculiarities of shape, its unevenness, its noise. The truths of life as we experience them—and as art expresses them – include random and distracting influences as essential parts of their nature. Theoretical rocks are the province of science; particular rocks are the province of art.

The richness of science comes from really smart people asking precisely framed questions about carefully controlled events—controlled in the sense that such random or distracting influences don’t count. The scientist, if asked whether a given experiment could be repeated with identical results, would have to say yes—or it wouldn’t be science. The presumption is that at the end of a scientific experiment neither the researcher nor the world have changed, and so repeating the experiment would necessarily re-produce the same result. Indeed, anyone performing the experiment correctly would get the same results—a circumstance that on occasion leads to multiple claims for the same discovery.

But the artist, if asked whether an art piece could be remade with identical results, would have to answer no—or it wouldn’t be art. In making a piece of art, both the artist and the artist’s world are changed, and re-asking the question—facing the next blank canvas—will always yield a different answer. This creates a certain paradox, for while good art carries a ring of truth to it—a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear—the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person and one time. There is a moment for each artist in which a particular truth can be found, and if it is not found then, it will not ever be. No one else will ever be in a position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made, not found. Our understanding of the world changed when those words were written, and we can’t go back… any more than Shakespeare could.

The world thus altered becomes a different world, with our alterations being part of it. The world we see today is the legacy of people noticing the world and commenting on it in forms that have been preserved. Of course it’s difficult to imagine that horses had no shape before someone painted their shape on the cave walls, but it is not difficult to see the world became a subtly larger, richer, more complex and meaningful place as a result.

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Aristotle’s Aitia

painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Dennett, Daniel Clement (Book – 1995) page 23

Our curiosity about things takes different forms, as Aristotle noted at the dawn of human science. His pioneering effort to classify them still makes a lot of sense. He identified four basic questions we might wanted answered about anything, and called their answers the four aitia, a truly untranlsatiable Greek term traditionally but awkwardly translated the four “causes.”

  1. We may be curious about what something is made of, its matter or material cause.
  2. We may be curious about the form (or structure or shape) that that matter takes its formal cause.
  3. We may be curious about its beginning, how it got started, or its efficient cause.
  4. We may be curious about its purpose or goal or end (as in “Do the ends justify the means?”), which Aristotle called its telos, sometimes translated in English, awkwardly, as “final cause.”

It takes some pinching and shoving to make these four Aristotelian aitia line up as the answers to the standard English questions “what, where, when, and why.” The fit is only fitfully good. Questions beginning with “why,” however, do standardly ask for Aristotle’s fourth “cause,” the telos of a thing. Why this? we ask. What is it for? As the French say, what is its raison d’etre, or a reason for being? For hundreds of years, these “why” questions have been recognized as problematic by philosophers and scientists, so distinct that the topic they raise deserves a name: teleology.


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Creativity, Words from Blackmore

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 239

Tamarisk has written a science book. This suggests that she consciously authored the book, but there is another way of looking at it Tamarisk is a gifted writer because the genes have created a brain that handles language well, and a determined individual who likes solitary work; because she was born into a society that values books and pays for them; because her education gave her the opportunity to discover how good she was at science; and because she has spent years studying and thinking until new ideas came out of the combinations of the old. When the book was completed it formed a new complex of memes; variations on old ones and new combinations created by the complicated processes inside a clever thinking brain. When asked, Tamarisk might say that she consciously and deliberately invented every word herself (though she is quite likely to say that she has no idea how she did it). I would say that the book was a combined product of genes and memes playing out their competition in Tamarisk’s life.

The view of creativity is alien to many people. In discussions of consciousness it is common to raise the issue of creativity, as though it somehow epitomizes the power of human consciousness. How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? How could we create great music, inspiring cathedrals, moving poems, or stunning paintings unless we have consciousness? – people ask. This view of creativity betrays a commitment to a false theory of self and consciousness, or to Dennett’s Cartesian Theatre (225). If you believe that you live inside your head and direct operations, then creative acts can seem especially good examples of things that “you” have done. But, as we have seen, this view of self does not hold up. There is no one inside there to do the doing – other than a bunch of memes.

I am not saying that there is no creativity. New books are written, new technologies invented, new gardens laid out, and new films produced. But, the generative power behind this creativity is the competition between replicators, not a magical, out-of-nowhere power such as consciousness is often said to be. The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are products of genetic evolution. Replicator power is the only design process we know of that can do the job, and it does it. We do not need conscious human selves messing about in there as well.

Of course selves are not irrelevant. Far from it. By virtue of their organization and persistence, selfplexes are powerful memetic entities that affect the behavior of the people who sustain them, and of all those who come into contact with them. But as far as creativity is concerned selves can often do more harm than good, for creative acts often come about in a state of selflessness, or loss of self0cinciousness, when the self seems to be out of the way. Artists, writers, and runners often say they are at their best when acting spontaneously and without self-consciousness. So selves have effects but not as the originators of conscious creativity.

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When you pay for art, what are you paying for?

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 173

If the idea of exchanging goods for taking on memes seems unfamiliar, we might think of the bartering of memes that goes on all around us. We are used to the idea of paying for the information we want, by buying books or newspapers, paying our TV licence, or buying tickets to the cinema, but if people want to impose their ideas on us, then they have to pay to get our attention, like advertisers and politicians do.

Insight and Outlook: An Inquiry into the Common Foundations of Science, Art and Social Ethics by Koestler, Arthur (Book – 1949) p.286-287

The artist and his work do not provide the current like an electric company, only the installation; the current has to be generated by the consumer. We know that emotion cannot be handed on from a person or an object to another person, like food or money. We tend to fall into the mistake of taking a metaphor at its face value, and believe that the stage play literally “provides’ us with a thrill against cash payment for our seats, and that emotions are thus traded like wares. What we buy on the market of Art—a picture, a book, or a seat in the stalls—is however, not an emotion, but a set of stimuli deigned to elicit integrative impulses in us and to canalize them in such a way as to lead them to satisfaction—while otherwise they would remain frustrated, or look for coarser outlets. For our nervous system constantly generates all kinds of tensions which run through our minds like stray eddies and erratic currents. The set of stimuli proved by the work of Art draws energy from this tension-generating organic source and leads it to catharsis. It does not drain something that it has previously pumped in; it draws, as it were, on the consumer’s own reservoir of integrative energy.

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Meme- n. an element of culture

Painting by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from The Meme Machine by Blackmore, Susan J. (Book – 2000) page 15

Where do new memes come from? They come about through variation and combination of old ones– either inside one person’s mind, or when memes are passed from person to person. So, for example, the poodle story is concocted out of language that people already know and ideas they already have, put together in new ways. They then remember it and pass it on, and variations occur in the process. And the same is true of inventions, songs, works of art, and scientific theories. The human mind is a rich source of variation. In our thinking we mix up ideas and turn them over to produce new combinations. In our dreams we mix them up even more, with bizarre—and occasionally creative—consequences. Human creativity is a process of variation and recombination.

In thinking about thinking we should remember that not all thoughts are memes. In principle, our immediate perceptions and emotions are not memes because they are ours alone, and we may never pass them on. We may imagine a beautiful scene from memory, or fantasise about sex or food, without using ideas that have been copied from someone else. We may even, in principle, think up a completely new way of doing something without using any memes from anyone else. However, in practice, because we use memes so much, most of our thinking is coloured by them in one way or another. Memes have become the tools with which we think.

Insight and Outlook: An Inquiry into the Common Foundations of Science, Art and Social Ethics by Koestler, Arthur (Book – 1949) page 412

What Mallarme said about the implicit nature of poetry is valid for all the arts:

There should be nothing but allusion. The contemplation of objects, the volatile image of the dreams which they evoke, these make the song… the symbol is formed by the perfect use of this mystery to select an object and to extract from it by a series of decipherings, a mood.