The Future of Science is Art?

So the new Seed is now on the newstands. I've got a longish essay sketching out possible future interactions between science and art:

The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science's theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights that are the seeds of scientific progress.

Don't worry, the whole article doesn't consist of such vague platitudes. In fact, the essay is full of specific examples of how science could actually benefit from a sincere engagement with the arts. Better yet, Seed actually found a bunch of scientists (from Daniel Gilbert to Daniel Levitin) who describe how various works of art (from Dvorak to Escher) influenced their own scientific ideas.

Elsewhere, bioephemera has a really smart response to the article. Although she disagrees with some of my points, I heartily endorse her conclusion:

So what place does art have in science? It enhances creativity. It helps us see things with new eyes - prompting us to ask new questions or resolve intractable problems. In the quantitatively inclined, it maintains a healthy left-brain/right-brain balance: most scientists I know are either artists or musicians (I may have a biased data set). And because art vaults right over jargon and equations, it's the best tool we have for sharing complex scientific concepts with nonspecialists, or for "re-phrasing" what we know, so we can consider it from a new angle.

If you find the intersection of art and science interesting, be sure to check out my book.

More like this

I've been interested in music and science since taking a physics of music class back in college (20 years later, amazingly, I discovered my violin teacher of 2000, Kevin Bushee, was married to the daughter of the professor who taught that class), so I was intrigued to find this Wired piece in which…
A new study of brain responses to music has found a striking difference in brain activity when a symphonic movement ends and the next one begins, compared to other parts of the musical work. A team led by Vinod Menon (and including This Is Your Brain on Music author Daniel Levitin) played excerpts…
(From PhD Comics) Well I've been preparing for labmeeting so instead of giving you another long diatribe about the significance of negative data I'll list some interesting current events: Today Harvey Lodish is giving a very interesting talk about how to set up a biotech company while staying in…
I was watching David Byrne + Daniel Levitin at The Seed Salon yesterday evening and heard Daniel Levitin (the professor dude) talk about how ironic that the brain, which receives sensory inputs from all over the body, does not itself have sensory nerves. He further added helpfully that you would…

"For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc....Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention - in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being" - Igor Stravinksy

I can't say much about art in general, so I hope this generalizes well, but that Stravinksy quote sums up how I feel about music's relationship with any form of symbolic expression. Not to say that music cannot incorporate scientific truth, it very well can, but that it incorporates it as easily and with as much scrutiny as it does falsehood.

In my experience, composition is a search for constraints. One takes an infinite set of possible tones and durations and applies constraints and winnows them down by applying constraints. Choosing a key and chords within it constrain pitch. Picking a time signature constrains the rhythms. Combining rhythms and pitches into motifs then constrain you futher. The thematic aspect restricts the usage of chord changes and repetition of motifs to ones that match it. Adopting some correlary with scientific reality can provide one of these constraints, but so can retelling a legend, or the I Ching, or a random number generator. Music can serve the truth, but it can also serve lies; except fealty to either and you'll fail to understand it fully; require fealty to either and you'll castrate it.

Music has more in common with the erotic than the scientific. In it, sensation is an end in and of itself that need not serve any instrumental purpose; contrast this with empiricism, where sensation is a means to the ends of finding some objective truth.

(For what it's worth, I don't count literature as art in the same way as music or the visual arts. Art is fundamentally sensation but can contain expression (such as lyrics) to embellish it; literature is fundamentally expression but can contain sensation to embellish it. An example of the distinction would be that "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" doesn't contain expression, but it does contain sensation. The lyrics of songs by The Fall often accomplish the same thing by being at least superficially incoherent.)

I haven't read the article, so just a general observation:

Art is by nature highly conservative / unstable -- perturb it away from excellence and it diverges hopelessly toward garbage. Look at Western art post-1940, say. People keep complaining about seeing the same figures, the same linear perspective, the same aesthetic principles -- well, OK, you might be able to expand them a bit, but not much. Pretty soon, all that ends up with is novelty for novelty's sake.

Science is just the opposite, and you can fill in the rest of this paragraph by taking complements of the art paragraph.

For example, look at how rich the idea was to question one of Euclid's postulates -- all sorts of geometry was discovered. That happens a lot. But try questioning linear perspective in favor of the Cubist perspective -- meh, pretty junky. That's typical of abandoning aesthetic criteria.

That's a pretty big chasm to talk across -- not that it couldn't be done. Luckily for science, scientists don't take silly ideas popular in the arts / humanities seriously and thereby destroy their work. But look at how degenerate the arts become when they try the "question everything" approach of science. If I were an artist, I'd be very suspicious of someone who told me to think more like a scientist!

"If the world really works in a way so as to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe the enterprises of culture will eventually fall out into science, by which I mean the natural sciences, and the humanities, particularly the creative arts."

"Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science"

E.O. Wilson "Consilience"


I wonder if science isn't sometimes novelty for novelty's sake also.

Just look at the study of the correlation of country music listeners and suicide rates.

There is a lot of dreck in both art and science, just as there is in any human endeavor....and then emerges something worthwhile.