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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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.


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The God of Experiment

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.

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Hitchhiker’s Guide

Map of Norway

An excerpt from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy By Adams, Douglas (Book – 1980) p. 192.

“Perhaps, I’m old and tired” he continued, “but I always think that the chances of finding out what is really going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang  the sense of it and keep yourself occupied . Look at me: I design coast lines.  I got an award for Norway.” 

He rummaged around in a pile of debris and pulled out a large Plexiglas block with his name on it and a model of Norway molded into it.

“Where’s the sense in that?” he said. “None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fjords all my life. For a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award.”

He turned it over in his hands with a shrug and tossed it aside carelessly, but not so carelessly that it didn’t land on something soft.

“In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do and of course I’m doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them, and I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough. Equatorial!” He gave a hollow laugh. “What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things, of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”

“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down, of course.”


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Words from Annie Dillard

Painting by Katarina Countiss

An excerpt from An American Childhoood
 by Annie Dillard (pg.213)

Week after week, year after year, after art class I walked the vast museum, and lost myself in the arts, or the sciences. Scientists, it seemed to me as I read the labels on display cases (bivalves, univavles; ungulates, lagomorphs), were collectors and sorters, as I had been. They noticed the things that engaged the curious mind: the way the world develops and divides,  colony and polyp, population and tissue, ridge and crystal. Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind’s private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of light into color, and the way it shades off round a bend. The humble attention painters gave to the shadow of a stalk or the reflected sheen under a chin, or the lapping layers of strong stokes, included and extended the scientists’ vision of each least thing as unendingly interesting. But artists laid down the vision in the form of beauty bare–Man Walking–radiant and fierce, inexplicable without the math.