The Art and Science of Naming Things

We had a talk last night by Alan Lightman of MIT, a theoretical physicist and novelist, best known as the author of Einstein’s Dreams. He spoke for about an hour about his own background, and the similarities and differences between the worlds of science and the arts.

One of the differences he mentioned was the way the different disciplines handle names. He claimed that science is deeply concerned with naming things, because naming a thing in some sense defines it– the word “electron” carries with it a whole host of properties that are shared by all electrons in the universe. In the arts, on the other hand, names don’t have the same power, because the same word can mean different things in different contexts, and for different people. For that reason, he claimed, artists are not as keen to name things as scientists.

I found this particularly interesting, because just before the talk, I was looking at an exhibit of science-themed art and old scientific equipment. Included in the exhibit are a set of large prints of micrographs of patterns made by bacteria cultured in some sort of dirt. This included a little poem about the project, and a comment giving part of the credit for the work to “millions of microorganisms.” As I complained to a colleague, though, it does not include the species names of the microorganisms. It’s not like the Latin names would mean anything to me, but as a scientist, I expect them to be there, and was faintly annoyed that they weren’t.

He also talked a bit about the different approaches science and art have to the idea of questions. Science is concerned with questions that have definite answers, and if a question is too big to be answered immediately, we break it down into smaller, simpler questions that we do know how to answer. Art, on the other hand, is concerned with really big questions, and views the asking of the questions as more important than the answers.

Being a somewhat contrary sort, this immediately made me think about questions in science that are unanswerable, at least for the moment– particle physics at the Planck scale, or interpretations of quantum mechanics, and that sort of thing. I asked about this during the question period, and he gave more or less the answer you would expect– that a subject asking questions that cannot be connected to experimental tests at some point ceases to be science. He said that interpretations of QM are essentially philosophy, and mentioned string theory as an area of physics that’s becoming problematic.

Other areas he commented on were the way both science and art tend to seek beauty through simplicity, the way both involve creativity (he used the example of physicists finding clever ways to make complicated problems look like a mass on a spring, which ties in nicely to some things I said in class recently), the way both fields involve imagination under serious constraints. He gave a detailed description of the Joyce story “The Dead,” and used it to argue that fiction is as tightly constrained by what we know of human nature as physics is constrained by experimental data about the world.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking talk. I’m not sure I really buy his claim about names, despite unwittingly providing it empirical support, but it’s an interesting comment all the same. It was also a well-attended talk, with a good number of students in the audience, though I suspect many of them were required to attend (I saw a bunch of them taking notes), or being bribed to attend (I believe 12 of my 16 students turned up to claim the five-point bonus I offered on Thursday’s exam).


  1. #1 Glendon Mellow
    April 22, 2009

    The question of accuracy in science-inspired art is one that vexes me a lot. The very act of representing something in another media makes it less accurate than the original object or event. But how to make accurate and inspiring art?

    It seems the only answer comes in labeling a broader definition of art: the art of the diagram, the art of the x-ray telescope photo. And that’s fine, but a little divorced from the image/object making that art is widely regarded to be. So is the answer a broader definition of “art” (with fine art as a subset for the traditional stuff? Or in a new type of accurate yet interpretive vision that lies just over the horizon for the moment? (a guess: holograms?)

    As soon as artistic vision comes into play, it intrudes upon the accuracy in a way that seems analogous to the observer intruding on the phenomena.

  2. #2 Electric Landlady
    April 22, 2009

    The very act of representing something in another media makes it less accurate than the original object or event.

    Yes and no. I work with medical illustrators, and a lot of what they do involves distilling or abstracting the essential elements of a structure or process and leaving out the distractions. A photograph, or an individual item, can show you this item, with all its flaws and distractions and deviations from type, but an illustration can show the ideal item or process, and only that. (Botanical illustrators get into this a lot too.)

    So illustrations are often less precise, yes, but less accurate? I’m not so sure. I don’t know if a hologram of one particular item would be “better” than a good illustration, for certain purposes. (Obviously it also depends what you’re using the illustration for.) Or maybe I’m misinterpreting what you mean.

  3. #3 Matt Leifer
    April 22, 2009

    “He said that interpretations of QM are essentially philosophy…”

    Had I been in the audience I would have put up a bit of a fight about this.

  4. #4 Glendon Mellow
    April 22, 2009

    Electric Landlady, that’s a good point about scientific illustrations clarifying a potentially messy image, especially for specific purposes.

    I think the definition of accuracy I was using in my comment wasn’t very precise. ;-)

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    April 22, 2009

    Lay down a grid of microelectrodes (e.g., flat screen display driver plate), some nutrient, then myxomycetes, dictyostelids or protostelids. Any bug can sit there and go bang. Slime molds will march on the field. How often can one make art with a square foot of dog vomit (Fuligo septica)? (Frank Gehry architecture excepted)

  6. #6 CCPhysicist
    April 22, 2009

    So true about naming things. Scientists, as a group, often act as if knowing the name of a thing is the same as knowing it. See something new? Name it! Then study it. After all, you can’t study “it” unless you and others agree on what “it” you are studying. But this usually results in scientists acting as if knowing the name is enough.

    I can imagine a discussion with Emmy on this.

    A dog? I am more than “a dog”! I am unique! Do any other animals go chasing after invisible bunnies made of cheese? I don’t think so!

  7. #7 Eofhan
    April 23, 2009

    Artists are personal storytellers. Accuracy, for an artist, is defined by whether or not the audience receives the intention of the piece. Artists are trying to communicate something that won’t fit into normal channels. So they compose something that will fit into normal channels, such that it will evoke in the recipient the not-directly-communicable thing that the artist is really trying to communicate. An example: Imagine a couple you know, who are deeply in love. You grok that they are deeply in love. Art is portraying a couple of strangers, such that you apprehend the strangers’ love just as you do that of the real people around you.

    Science must be directly communicable. Even without other scientists. That sounds strange, but fundamentally science is measurement. Naming something is putting boundaries on it. Unless I know where an object ends, I can’t measure it.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 23, 2009

    Alan Lightman only had one poem published. It then won the Rhysling Award. Do you know how many time I had get a science or science fiction poem published to win one?> It was certainly more than one…

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