Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

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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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Sometimes, A Butterfly is Just a Butterfly

Bosch’s Garden of Eartly Delights

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 1666-67.

Because Nabokov ranks among the aesthetic gods of our time, critics and scholars have sifted every word of his writing for clues about sources and influences, and a veritable “industry” of Nabokovian interpretation has constructed elaborate and implausible literary “theories” about the meaning of his work. In reading through his material for an essay on Nabokov’s lepidoptery in literature (published in I Have Landed, Harmony Books, 2002), I became both amused and a bit disturbed by the inability of most literary scholars to think outside their own “box” and proceed beyond their conventional modes of interpretation. All critics recognize, of course, that Nabokov’s writing includes copious references to butterflies and moths, and all scholars know the sources of Nabokov’s expertise in this biological arena.

 Faced with a consequent need to examine the relationship between Nabokov’s science and his writing, scholars in the humanities have, almost invariably, take refuge in the conventional claim of their craft, despite Nabokov’s own clear rejection of this hypothesis. They argue that as, a literary man, Nabokov used his knowledge of butterflies primarily as a source for metaphors and symbols. Joann Karges, for example (in Nabokov’s Lepidoptera: Genres and Genera, Addis Press, 1985) writes: “Many of Nabokov’s butterflies, particularly pale and white ones, carry the traditional ageless symbol of the anima, psyche or soul… and suggest the evanescence of a sprit departed or departing from the body.”

 But Nabokov himself vehemently insisted that he not only maintained no interest in butterflies as literary symbols, but also that he would regard such usage as a perversion and desecration of his true concerns. (Artists, and all of us, of course, have been known to dissemble, but I see no reason to suspect Nabokov’s explicit comments on this subject.) For example, he stated in an interview: “That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something (e.g., Psyche) lies utterly outside my area of interest.”

Over and over again, Nabokov debunks symbolic readings in the name of respect for factual accuracy. For example, he criticizes Poe’s metaphorical invocation of the death’s head moth because Poe didn’t describe the animal and, even worse, because he placed the species outside its true geographic range: “Not only did he [Poe] not visualize the death’s-head moth, but he was also under the complete erroneous impression that it occurs in America.” Most tellingly, in a typical Nabokovian passage in Ada, he playfully excoriates Hieronymus Bosch for including a butterfly as a symbol in his Garden of Earthly Delights, but then depicting the wings in reverse by painting the gaudy top surface on an insect whose folded wings should be displaying the underside!

 A tortoiseshell in the middle panel, placed there as if settled on a flower–mark the “as if,” for here we have an example of exact knowledge of the two admirable girls, because they say that actually the wrong side of the bug is shown, it should have been the underside, if seen, as it is, in profile, but Bosch evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect. I mean I don’t give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth, for the masterpiece-baiter who makes Bosch express some bosh of his time, I’m allergic to allegory.

 Finally, when Nabokov does cite a butterfly in the midst of a metaphor, he attributes no symbolic meaning to the insect, but only describes an accurate fact to carry his more general image. For example, he writes in an early story, titled “Mary”: “Their letters managed to pass across the terrible Russian of that time–like a cabbage white butterfly flying over the trenches.”

I think that we should accept Nabokov at his own word, and honor his different interpretation of how his scientific sensibilities played out within his literature–or rather, a and more accurately, how a crucial aspect of his temperament, and a central component of his convictions, served him so well, and in the same manner, in both his fiction and his science. Nabokov, as one of literature’s consummate craftsmen, upheld the sacredness of accurate factuality– an obvious requirement in science, but also a boon to certain genres of literature. Interestingly, and befitting his deserved greater reputation as a writer than as a biologist (for Nabokov ranks as one of the great novelists of all time, and as an accomplished technician, but not as a brilliant theorist, in science), Nabokov frequently asserted–thus placing his story within this section on the fusions of unum–that literature and science meet in mutual respect for detailed factuality, with the highest virtue of accuracy residing in the evident beauty of such material truth.

Thus no one grasped the extent of underlying unity between science and literature better than Vladimir Nabokov, who worked with different excellences as a full professional in both domains. Nabokov often insisted that his literary and entomological pursuits shared a common mental and psychological ground In Ada, while invoking a common anagram for “insect,” one of Nabokov’s characters states: “‘If I could write’ mused Demon, ‘I would describe, in too many words no doubt, how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously–c’est le mot– art and science meet in an insect.”’

Returning to his central theme of aesthetic beauty in both the external existence and our internal knowledge of scientific detail, Nabokov wrote in 1959: “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” When Nabokov spoke of the precision of poetry in taxonomic description”– no doubt with conscious intent to dissipate a paradox that leads most people to regard art and science as inexorably distinct and opposed– he used his literary skills in the service of unity. Thus in a 1966 interview Nabokov broke the boundaries of art and science by stating that the highest ideal of each domain must also characterize true excellence in the other.

The tactile delights of precise delineation, the silent paradise of the camera lucida and the precision of poetry in taxonomic description represent the artistic side of the thrill which accumulation of new knowledge, absolutely useless to the layman, gives its first begetter… There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.

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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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The New Landscape in Art and Science

Cloud Chamber Photograph
Prof. G.E. Valley,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Excerpt from The New Landscape in Art and Science by Kepes, Gyorgy (Book – 1956) p.14

“It has been the nature of our age to place the word above the picture, the prose above the poetry, the problem above the tragedy, the search for truth by methods of scince above the search for truth by the intuitive methods of the artist.”

 Kepes’ book is worth reading just for the gorgeous picture of our natural world clipped and cropped into a series of black and white photographs. It is worth digesting word for word because its powerful prose captures the heart of the matter that this blog is trying to excavate from our cluttered culture. Every paragraph drips with the sweet sentiment that science alone is missing something. Though it is incredibly awe-inspiring, the nature of nature requires, as Kepes puts it, a poet’s heart and painter’s eye.

The book’s themes:
Image, Form, Symbol
Domesticating the Invisible
The Esthetic Motivation of Science
The Industrial Landscape
Vision, Time, Optics
Thing, Structure, Pattern, Process
Analogue, Metaphor
Design and Function in the Living
Symmetry, Perception, Module/Organic Design
Continuity, Discontinuity, Rhymthm, Scale

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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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The Sisters B-36

Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from Timequake By Vonnegut, Kurt (Book – 1997) pages 17-18. Note: Kilgore Trout is a well-fleshed out alter-ego of the author as a scapegoat for campy ideas. Do not be fooled. And I shortened some parts in this story to eliminate tangents that would require more explanation.

All I do with short story ideas now is rough them out, credit them to Kilgore Trout, and put them in a novel. Here’s the start of another one hacked from the carcass of Timequake One, and entitled “The Sisters B-36”: “On the matriarchal planet Booboo in the Crab Nebula, there were three sisters whose last name was B-36. It could be only a coincidence that their family name was also that of an Earthling airplane designed to drop bombs on civilian populations with corrupt leaderships. Earth and Booboo were too far apart to ever communicate.”…

…”All three of the sisters were beautiful, so went Trout’s tale, but only two of them were popular, on a picture painter and the other a short story writer. Nobody could stand the third one, who was a scientist. She was so boring! All she could talk about was thermodynamics. She was envious. Her secret ambition was to make her two artistic sisters feel, to use a favorite expression of Trout’s, “like something the cat drug in.”

Trout said Booboolings were among the most adaptable creatures in the local family of galaxies. This was thanks to their great big brains, which could be programmed to do or not to do, and feel or not feel, just about anything. You name it!… Thus were the brains of most, but not quite all, Booboolings made to crow circuits, microchips, if you like, which on Earth would be called imaginations. Yes, and it was precisely because a vast majority of Booboolings had imaginations that two of the B-36 sisters, the short story writer and the painter, were so beloved.

The bad sister had an imagination, all right, but not in the field of art appreciation. She wouldn’t read books or go to art galleries. She spent every spare minute when she was little in the garden of a lunatic asylum next door. The psychos in the garden were believed to be harmless, so her keeping them company was regarded as a laudably compassionate activity. But the nuts taught her thermodynamics and calculus and so on.

When the bad sister was a young woman, she and the nuts worked up designs for television cameras and transmitters and receivers. Then she got money from her very rich mom to manufacture and market these satanic devices, which made imaginations redundant. They were instantly popular because the shows were so attractive and no thinking was involved.

She made a lot of money, but what really pleased her was that her two sisters were starting to feel like something the cat drug in. Young Booboolings didn’t see any point in developing imaginations anymore sine all they had to do was turn a switch and see all kinds of jazzy shit. They would look at a printed page or a painting and wonder how anybody could have gotten his or her rocks off looking at things that simple and dead.