The Future of Science…Is Art?

Fourth Culture / by Jonah Lehrer /

To answer our most fundamental questions, science needs to find a place for the arts.

A Couple in the Street, 1887
CHARLES ANGRAND

Human eyes are horizontally offset from each other, and the visual system uses that offset to calculate depth. When an object is fixated upon, images are cast on the same place on each retina. A view with many identical (or similar) objects casts multiple images on the eyes, which can either be correctly matched, giving a flat impression, or mismatched, so one image corresponds to the other, but at a different depth. I think that the artists from the impressionist and post-impressionist periods figured this out. They said they could paint air and managed to do so by creating false stereopsis cues, which manipulate depth perception. So Angrand’s painting actually looks more three-dimensional when you view the painting with both eyes instead of with a single eye.—Margaret Livingstone, Neuroscientist, Harvard University © The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

This is why modern physics needs the arts. Once we accept the importance of metaphor to the scientific process, we can start thinking about how we can make those metaphors better. Poets, of course, are masters of metaphor: The power of their art depends on the compression of meaning into meter; vague feelings are translated into visceral images. It’s not a coincidence that many of the greatest physicists of the 20th century—eminent figures like Einstein, Feynman, and Bohr—were known for their distinctly romantic method of thinking. These eminent scientists depended on their ability to use metaphor to see what no one else had ever seen, so that the railroad became a metaphor for relativity, and a drop of liquid helped symbolize the atomic nucleus. Poets can speed this scientific process along, helping physicists to invent new metaphors and improve their old ones. Perhaps we can do better than a garden hose. Maybe a simile will help unlock the secret of dark matter. As the string theorist Brian Greene recently wrote, the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real,” jarring the scientific imagination into imagining new things.

But there’s another way that artists can bring something to the cosmic conversation: they can help make the scientific metaphors tangible. When the metaphysical equation is turned into a physical object, physicists can explore the meaning of the mathematics from a different perspective. Look, for example, at a Richard Serra sculpture. His labyrinths of bent metal let us participate in the theoretical, so that we might imagine the strange curves of space-time in an entirely new way. The fragmented shapes of cubism, which engaged in such a fruitful dialogue with the avant-garde physics of its time, served a similar purpose. Picasso never understood the equations—he picked up non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist—but he was determined to represent this new way of thinking about space in his paintings. A century later, physicists are still using his shattered still lifes as a potent symbol of their science. Abstract art lets us comprehend, at least a little bit, the incomprehensible.

It’s time for the dialogue between our two cultures to become a standard part of the scientific method. (Our universities could begin by offering a “Poetry for Physicists” class.) But it’s also crucial to take our scientific metaphors beyond the realm of the metaphorical, so we can better understand the consequences of our theories. Art galleries should be filled with disorienting evocations of string theory and the EPR paradox. Every theoretical physics department should support an artist-in-residence. Too often, modern physics seems remote and irrelevant, its suppositions so strange they’re meaningless. The arts can help us reattach physics to the world we experience.

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