Art and Science

More than a decade ago I had a great time studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute for a postgrad diploma career break year.  My “extended essay” was entitled From Science to Art: The Influence on Cubism of ideas of the Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry (so there).

Re-reading it recently, I realised that the concluding paragraphs said something that lingers with me about the relationship between art and science, and an earlier part of the essay describes a framework for thinking about science in art which also stands the test of time, in my head (!),   and justifies me in my continuing belief that art has barely come close to scratching the beauty of science – the only time I can see that it has done, it appears to be accidental.  Anyway, I’m turning those two parts into a  blog here, now.  For anyone remotely interested I’ve put the whole essay up here.


A Framework for the Influence of Science on Art

It is useful to classify the ways in which Art can utilise the theory and practice of Science into four types: materials, images, ideas and insights.


The first way in which Science influences Art is in providing materials for use.  The development of coloured pigments and stable media, and technologies for reproduction without the need for expedients such as woodblock carving have facilitated the creation and development of art.  I shall not discuss this further here as the mathematical ideas under discussion in this essay do not result in new materials.  However, this category is a key element of a generic framework, as is illustrated each time an artist-in-residence at a scientific institution uses the materials of Science as a part of their work[1].


The next way in which artists can be influenced by Science is by a borrowing of the images of Science.  The fascination of artists for scientific discoveries of the human body was demonstrated recently by the exhibition Spectacular Bodies[2], for example.  Images of the graphical displays from particle accelerator experiments and photographs of cells have been modified and displayed, by artists, as artworks – for example Sandra McQueen’s Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994 (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Microscope slide of a fragment of the organ of Corti – a sensory cell in the ear (left) with S. McQueen, Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994, vitreous enamel on copper (right).

Science can add to the repertoire of images, deployed as aesthetic objects in their own right.   Where Science adds to the repertoire of concepts deployed by Art, we encounter one of the last two types of influence: ideas or insight.


Discoveries of science often, through popularisation, enter the common vocabulary as metaphors or analogies.  Chaos Theory’s description of a butterfly’s wing beat causing a hurricane on the other side of the world has entered the common vocabulary as an example of the interconnectedness of things, such as global stock exchanges[3].  In fact, in Chaos theory the butterfly’s wing beat was invoked to illustrate the extreme sensitivity of dynamic systems to their initial conditions – a different point than that of interconnectedness.  This example illustrates the fact that concepts, particularly in the popularisation of science, may stray some way from the scientific point originally being illustrated.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but such straying is highly relevant to Cubism, as we see later.

Further, an issue common to Chaos Theory, Catastrophe Theory, Complexity Theory, and even Relativity Theory is that the common understanding of the theory is unduly influenced by the English word used imperfectly to describe it.  We need to remain conscious that the idea deployed is the idea of common understanding, often re-interpreted a number of times, rather than necessarily endowing the validity of the scientific idea onto the result because we happen to use the same label[4].

I have called this category “idea” for want of a better word.  In using the term in this essay I need to exclude one possible interpretation of the “idea of science” from this category – the interpretation where the true concept of the science is deployed.  To distinguish it from the imperfectly applied idea as presented in this category, I call this “insight”.


The final way in which science can influence art is where the art exhibits a genuine scientific insight.  Simon Patterson’s Untitled of 1996 (Figure 2) depicts a periodic table of the elements with conventional symbols but with element names replaced by cosmological entities, Beryllium (Be) is replaced by Betelgeuse, for example.  This expresses a scientific insight of the connection between the very small and large, and the fact that, despite the enormous scale of the universe, it is all made of the same constituents[5].  It is interesting that this artwork is popular with scientists.  Their aesthetic response is not formalist or art-historical, it is a science-aesthetic response, and I return to this idea in my conclusion.


Figure 2.  S. Patterson, Untitled, 1996

[1] For example, I recall an artist-in-residence at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) speaking at a public meeting and telling of how he used in his sculpture a new metal alloy originally developed for use as a component of scientific apparatus.

[2] Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, Hayward Gallery, 2000-1, exh. cat. ed. M. Kemp and M. Wallace

[3] For example, A. Wileman, ‘Butterflies in Bangkok’, Management Today, May 2001, p. 91.

[4] Numerous examples of where this semantic misunderstanding has occurred for even quite highly-regarded thinkers are listed in A. Sokal and J. Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, Profile, 1998.

[5] There is evidence to suggest that this specific insight was accidental, rather than intentional: for example, Patterson has also produced works based on the periodic table where the element names are replaced by names of film stars.  In his juxtapositions of commonplace frameworks with unusual elements Patterson provokes many interesting interpretations and reactions.


Reflections on the Science/Art Interface

Science and Art are both disciplines which depend heavily on an aesthetic sense, and which create constructs of enormous beauty.  This is not immediately obvious to many, especially in the case of Science.  However, it is worth remembering that this is not obvious to many when applied to art also – particularly non-representative, or “difficult” art such as Cubist art.  Science, and much art, require for their appreciation a patient accumulation of ideas and insights, expressed in new vocabularies.  As a traveller in the foothills of both summits, occasionally glimpsing the wonders of a higher part of the mountain, I know that there is much to be gained from both disciplines.

There is an attraction, therefore, to situations where Science and Art seem to have combined in some way.  Can such combinations create a greater beauty than either discipline alone?  One such area of apparent combination {Picasso, cubism, non-euclidean geometry – Ed} has been considered in this essay.  What can we learn from this case?

Firstly, it is clear that the impact of this science on this art is relatively peripheral – it was not a central driver for the development of Cubism.  This is not a case where the art has captured scientific beauty to a great extent.  However, an appreciation of the science context augments appreciation of the art.  There are examples where the exact reverse of this situation is true, ie of science-aesthetically wonderful works which are augmented by a small amount of artistic input[1].

Secondly, the role of Princet is important.  It is increasingly common for workplaces and science institutions to have poets-, or artists-, in-residence.  Princet was a “mathematician in residence” for the bande a Picasso.  This may be an idea that has wider applicability – where are the interpreters of the wonders of Science and Mathematics for the artists of today?

Finally, I conjecture that there is an as-yet unrealised deep beauty from great art that utilises the insights (rather than just images, or analogies) of great science.  The conceptual, rather than perceptual, nature of modern art seems key to this, however it may not be possible – the beauty in Science may be inexpressible in the language of Art.  What I am seeking may be analogous to someone who appreciating the literature of his own language, and having striven to become fluent in another language the better to read the literature of that language, requests that poems be written combining both languages to achieve a higher beauty than can be expressed in either language alone.

Yet I feel that the twin summits of Art and Science, so enormous when seen from the foothills, are tiny compared to the contexts they share.  Specifically, they exist in a shared universe, share a common humanity to discover and appreciate them, and they share a common aesthetically driven approach in their development.  I am reminded of a work by Henry Moore (Figure 11).  To me the strong outer structure of this work symbolises the profound underlying connection between the fields of human endeavour, with the two small constructions, representing Art and Science, coming from what appear to be opposite sides, and painfully stretching across the interior space without touching.  If only we could connect these beautiful entities.  What a void we could fill.  What surprises we might find.


moore oval

Figure 11.  H. Moore, Oval with Points, 1970

[1] I think here of the production of fractal visual images of the Mandelbrot set and other entities uncovered by studying the rate of convergence of simple functions in the complex plane.  The level of appreciation of such items is hugely enhanced by an understanding of the underlying mathematical process.  The contribution of artists to this work has been in providing aesthetically appealing colour schemes for the display of such images – a relatively small artistic contribution in this case.

The Nature of the Universe

The first book that I read about cosmology was my Father’s copy of “The Nature of the Universe” by Fred Hoyle.   In that book Fred Hoyle explains his theory of a steady state universe, continually expanding and with new matter slowly created in the gaps between existing matter.  The theory is appealing as it avoids the need for a prime cause, and it explains the growing distances between objects.  In other words it was an alternative theory to the big bang.  (The term “big bang” was invented by Hoyle, potentially as a way of highlighting its absurdity.)

It was therefore quite interesting, having swallowed that theory first, to come across the big bang theory a little while later, and to learn about the evidence that eventually killed off the steady state idea (eg cosmic background radiation).  Looking back it was probably quite a formative experience as I had to reject a previously held theory and as such it was a very practical induction into the scientific method.

I would be very tempted to let that book be my son’s introduction to cosmology precisely so that he could go through the same process – although he’s already aware of the big bang idea.  We’ll just have to settle for the Santa Claus disillusionment event to have the same effect.

Reading around this a bit (during which, incidentally, I found this very good paper about genetic algorithms) it’s clear that the debate between the big bang protagonists and the steady staters was being played out in the public realm as well as within the journals and corridors of science.   And as this article shows there was much ideological input to the debate too with the Vatican coming out in favour of the big bang theory, precisely because it left a door open for an overall creator.

The only comparable debate I can think of being played out currently is that around the existence and human causation of climate change – but I don’t think the analogy works: I’m not seeing a scientific debate about the fact or causation of climate change.  And that leaves me wondering whether we will see any other fundamental scientific debates played out publicly – I am sure there are differing views on a wealth of ideas being tested and developed within the scientific community but they are on relatively small issues understood only to those discussing them.  Which is a shame, because perhaps it would be good for us all to see a scientific hypothesis overturned by science itself, every once in a while – just to remember that it happens.

Holiday Notes

A wonderful week in San Francisco followed by an awe-inspiring week in Arizona, and then a longer spell at an airport hotel in Los Angeles waiting to come home….

A mixed bag of thoughts that struck me at various points and which I feel oddly compelled to scatter:
1.  San Francisco is a friendly and attractive mechanism for converting sourdough bread into calf muscles.

2.  Starfish, which look incredibly inert from above are very active when you see them from underneath. Jellyfish are beautiful and deeply alien.

3.  California has a curious relationship with climate change epitomised  by the california academy of sciences. A very modern building with a  green “living roof”, strident displays warning of climate change – and gas patio heaters outside the cafe!

4.  Route 66 in Arizona has a disgraceful amount of litter by the side of it.  But the coincidence of coming into Seligman just as the Cars, the Motion Picture Soundtrack got to Our Town was just perfect, and touching.

5a. The Grand Canyon is both.

5b. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon it was so big and unusual that I couldn’t initially process it as a 3D image – it looked painted on.  When I did adjust for the diminished parallax it was truly awe-inspiring.  Definitely didn’t disappoint.  Gazing at its incessant detail I was reminded of the moment in September 1986 when I first saw Mandelbrot set images.  In a reflective moment of thinking how a river had carved this over millions of years I suddenly realised that it was less than 2% of the age of the Earth and had a “total perspective vortex” moment.

5c. There are worse places to be than the Grand Canyon at sunset.

6.  On a train journey a fellow passenger was wearing a baseball cap with the legend “World War 2 Veteran.  Battle of the Bulge” and staff members on the train and others would occasionally say to him “thank you for your service”.  I really can’t get my head straight on what I think about this.

7.  Arizona is a lot greener than I expected, though coming back to the UK I thought my eyes had a different colour filter on.  Also struck by how colourful UK currency is!

8.  On the subject of green, Wrigleys spearmint gum has changed colour since I was a boy, although I suppose it may always have been green in the US.

9.  Geology is much more interesting when its more extreme aspects are in your face or under your feet (or in the atmosphere potentially stopping you from getting home).

10.  Hypothesis: tessellated triangles are used for decoration by all cultures – human and otherwise!

11.  The paintings that captured my attention were this one and this one (why all the jugs, pots and other receptacles – must look into the symbolism of that).

12.  Neuroscience’s application to public policy is almost certainly at the level of metaphor or a repetition of evolution-based thinking rather than a direct insight. The possible exception being in relation to education policy.

13.  Disneyland broke through my cynical carapace within the first 100 seconds, but fortunately the omnipresence of retail helped me to reassemble it before we left.

14. United Airlines customer service is very good – even under pressure.

Being in the wrong for getting it right …

I feel that I am starting to detect a grumbling about how there has been an over-reaction to the threat of swine flu.  People refusing to take vaccines, for example.  And of course, whilst there has been an outbreak, the threatened pandemic hasn’t happened yet.

What I would like to see (but I’m not holding my breath) is a public “hey, this is great – we’ve seen this off together by doing the right thing – thank you experts, WHO, NHS, drug companies, local authorities for your action, advice, vaccine development and vaccination campaigns here.  Well done!”.

I suspect we’re more likely to see a “look, those so-called experts got all excited over nothing – the pandemic never happened!”.  And perhaps we’ll be a bit less likely to “catch it, bin it, kill it” next time around.

I am reminded (as we approach the end of this decade) of the fuss and bother around the “millennium bug” (remember that?).  People prophesied apocalyptic societal collapse unless something was done.  And of course no cataclysms occurred.  But that was because something was actually done!  At that time I was a Director in a division of a bank  and I remember asking the IT Director whether the people fixing the bugs in the bank’s system were in fact finding things that would have led to systems falling over.  She said “oh yes, definitely”.

I do hope there’s an opportunity to have a bit of a celebration once the threat of pandemic has passed.  Public honours for the people who led the effort, that sort of thing.

Evolution is FAST

Spent a fascinating evening learning about pesticides on Wednesday.  

No really.  

It was a programme of talks at Rothamsted Research ( about how pests evolve resistance to pesticides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides).  It was really interesting set of talks, and there were around 150 people there to hear them.

One of the things that struck me is that natural selection – which we’re used to think of as a really gradual process – can be incredibly fast.

Think about a new herbicide which is fantastic at killing a particular weed.  It’s so good that it kills 99% of the weed – with 1% having a slightly different genetic composition which for some reason makes it resistant.   In season one the herbicide will be tremendous.  But for season two the only seeds hanging around are going to be the ones from the 1% resistant variety, and they’ll have the field to themselves, more or less. 

Natural natural selection may be slow and subtle, because minor advantages take some time to show their advantageous nature, but the fundamental principle can be seen from one year to the next, if you’re looking.

Well I thought it was interesting, anyway.

The satisfaction of Unintelligent Design

In one of the New Towns near us today as we like the lake as a place to stroll around while the little one rides his bike just in front of us.  Struck once again by my ambivalence towards New Towns.  They’re all very convenient and ordered, and just the way you’d design it if you were able to do so.

And yet … 

The process of evolution by natural selection committed some errors. In Operational Research terms we have entered some local optima rather than achieving a global optimum.  Our bodies have yet to adapt to a vertical position, as our aching backs atest.  More tellingly the way that our eyes evolved left the blood vessels which feed the retina flowing along the top of it – partially obscuring the retina.  If designed from scratch the blood supply would be round the back, just as the wonderful service roads and bicycle underpasses serve the citizens of new towns.  

My chosen home town of Harpenden shows the residue of hundreds of thousands of disparate town planning and building decisions that have washed over each other and scrunched the residual shoreline of the current town.  And it’s gloriously imperfect – the way the road narrows on Station Road and always threatens head on collision, and the practical impossibility of cycling anywhere with a small child being cases in point.

And yet …

I prefer Harpenden.  Perhaps imperfection – a rich, complex, multi-layered imperfection recognises itself, and cherishes the symmetry rather than failing to click with the intelligent design.