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The Art of Science and the Science of Art

The Art of Science and the Science of Art

The famed chemist and novelist, C. P. Snow, in his highly regarded 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge bemoaned the growing schism between the humanities and the sciences. He christened this problem as the "two cultures". He opined that the root cause of the problem was the mutual incomprehension on both sides of the scientific and literary divide. According to Snow, the average scientist is oblivious to the books which are the bread and butter of the literary world, such as, novels, poetry, and plays and has generally only "tried a bit of Dickens". Similarly, asking the literati about the Second Law of Thermodynamics invariably results in a negative response even though it is the scientific equivalent of asking whether they have read Shakespeare. Going a step further he argues that not knowing about mass or acceleration is akin to not knowing how to read in the literary world. Snow posits that bridging the gap between the two cultures holds the key to solving the challenges that humanity faces. A decade before Snow, George Orwell in his telling essay, What is Science?, conjectured that a group of American and British physicists who refused to work on the atomic bomb had the humanities in their repertoire and their interests were not “purely scientific" which enabled them to listen to their conscience. Thus highlighting the need to strike a balance between the two cultures. Unfortunately, instead of paying heed to the wake up call of both Snow and Orwell, over the course of the last half a century, these two camps have become fractured even further. Interestingly, this friction has not affected some of the greatest names in literature, art, architecture, music, philosophy, science, and technology. Therefore, what do Whitman, Nabokov, Gaudi, Dali, Mozart, Einstein, Tagore, Edison, and Feynman have in common? The love for the arts and the sciences in equal measure.

Walt Whitman—arguably America’s most influential poet—in his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass endeavoured to strike a balance between the spiritual world and science and democracy. Along with celebrating the human spirit and the American dream, a common thread of scientific appreciation runs through his work. While chanting a "hurrah for positive science" in Song of Myself, he bestows "first honours" on physicists, mathematicians, and chemists. In a similar vein, he praises Darwinian and cosmic evolution in I Sing the Electric Body and Who Learns My Lesson Complete? At the same time, he warns us against the perils of deconstructing the universe through mere proofs, figures, and charts in When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer. As we set our sails to traverse unchartered territory beyond our planet and to determine if ours is a lone cry in the wilderness of space and time, Whitman reminds us that sometimes it is enough to look up in "perfect silence at the stars" and admire the beauty of the heavens. While science might be the enabler of our celestial journey, we still need to be aided by the humanities in deciphering the meaning of life and existence and in determining our place in the universe. Luckily, we can find solace in the words of Whitman when he says, "that we have positively appear’d—that is enough" in As the Time Draws Nigh and "that the powerful play goes on" and we "may contribute a verse" in O Me, O Life. Similarly, it is a little known fact that, Vladimir Nabokov, whose uncle K.D. Nabokov extensively translated Whitman to Russian, was an accomplished Lepidopterist. The writer of Lolita not only published research papers on the evolution of butterflies but was also, at one point, the curator of Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

Visitors to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain are blown away by its astonishing beauty, scale, complexity, and grandeur even in its incomplete state. The brainchild of the Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, it is renowned for its fusion of Catalan modernism and Gothic themes. What is the generally missed is the frequent use of Hyperbolic geometry, thanks to Gaudi’s study of geometry during his formative years. Inspired by nature, his use of Fractals—geometric figures with a repeating pattern at every granularity—adds an element of unorthodox stability to the entire structure in addition to enhancing its aesthetic value. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, of Le Petit Prince fame, once said that "a rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral". The image of the Sagrada Familia in Gaudi’s mind was clearly pinnacled on science. A few decades after Gaudi, Salvador Dali, also an advocate of Catalan modernism, incorporated various aspects of the sciences into his work. So much so that he described himself as someone who was swimming between "the cold water of art and the warm water of science". As a testament to this, one of his masterpieces, The Persistence of Memory, was inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis. A voracious reader of scientific books especially in physics, mathematics, and biology, his other work also clearly bears elements of his scientific predisposition. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the greatest and most prolific composers of all time, loved mathematics from an early age and according to his sister, "talked of nothing, thought of nothing but figures". Some of this fascination with numbers and perfection trickled into his work. He made extensive use of the Golden Ratio (dividing anything into two parts such that the ratio of the long part divided by the short part is the same as the original object divided by the long part) in most of his memorable piano sonatas. If we were to divide any of these sonatas into two parts: the Exposition (the introduction of the musical theme) and the Development and Recapitulation (the development and altered repetition of the Exposition) based on the number of measures in each and divide the latter by the former, we would get 62:38, i.e. the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is widely used to gauge beauty and perfection. One of the most intellectually stimulating conversations on the subject of beauty and truth and overlap of the two cultures took place between Einstein and Tagore, both Nobel Laureates, in 1930 at Einstein’s residence in Berlin (around the same time when Nabokov was in Berlin and incidentally lived nearby). Tagore believed that all truth and beauty was human-centric, i.e. without humans there would be no truth or beauty. While Einstein agreed with Tagore on his notion of beauty, he believed that truth was absolute. For instance, he believed that Pythagoras’ theorem would be true irrespective of human consciousness. What is fascinating about the entire discussion is the mutual understanding and admiration of both scientific truth and aesthetic sense. 

Thomas Edison, “the Wizard of Menlo Park", whose inventions, including the light bulb, motion pictures, and phonograph, shaped the course of humanity, attended school only briefly and as a result was largely self-taught. Over time he became an ardent reader of literature with a penchant for Victor Hugo. He talked so much about Les Miserables in his every day conversations that his friends started calling him "Victor Hugo" Edison. His fabled laboratory in West Orange also housed a library with 10,000 books where he conducted most of his work towards the end of his career. Being well read himself, he also tried his hand at poetry. Richard Feynman, along with being one of the most well known scientists of all time, was also one of the most eclectic. He spent his life popularising science through his lectures and writings. Feynman was also an artist and made portraits of fellow scientists and drew sketches of various subjects. In addition, he dabbled in both poetry and prose and was an avid percussionist who loved to play the bongos. In his 1981 interview with the BBC, he presented a soliloquy, dubbed Ode to a Flower, on the nature of beauty, wherein he argues that a multifaceted, scientific analysis of a flower—at smaller dimensions to understand its inner structure and processes—only adds to the beauty, wonder, and mystery of the flower. Thus underscoring that the humanities and the sciences go hand in glove. 

So if all of these intellectual giants were not only able to balance the arts and the sciences but to blend them into one, why is this two cultures eclecticism not more widespread these days? The answer may lie in the specialised nature of contemporary academic education. From an early age, students are forced to concentrate on a specific field to drive all of their future endeavours. This is more acute in Europe due to the emphasis on specialisation as opposed to the US where students are free to choose a minor during their undergraduate degrees. This at least enables them to study a series of topics, potentially diametrically opposed to their major. This diversity and heterogeneity needs to be incorporated into the formal curriculum from early school up to doctoral studies to enable individuals to broaden their horizons and bring down the wall between the two cultures. While realistically it might take a long time to change the educational structure around the world, in the meantime to stem the tide of borderline philistinism on the scientific side and antipathy towards everything scientific on the literary side, individuals from either culture need to embrace ideas from the other beyond just a modus vivendi

To this end, if you are a scientist, experience human sensibility with Marquez and Steinbeck, travel the world with Naipaul and Hemingway, lose yourself in the verses of Neruda and Rumi, indulge in thespian pursuits with Chekov and Ibsen, let Chopin and Handel hypnotise you with their melodies, watch Kubrick and Fellini breathe life into characters and words, and traverse the ocean of existence with Nietzsche and Sartre. Every time you read the Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan and Computing Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing make sure you also read Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution by Martin Luther King Jr. and The Responsibility of Intellectuals by Noam Chomsky. If you have a literary leaning, dissect your inner wiring with Watson and Pasteur, explore the wonders of the universe with Hawking and Sagan, admire the physical world with Schrodinger and Pauling, unleash your inner "mad scientist" with Tesla and da Vinci, decipher the human condition with Sen and Keynes, trace your existence with Freud and Darwin, and fall in love with the perfection of numbers with Fibonacci and Khowarizmi. For every painting by Gustav Klimt you admire, allow yourself to be equally mesmerised by an image of outer space from the Hubble Telescope. This is the only way to engender an all-encompassing and all-embracing "third culture”.


1 comment

Zubair, This is excellent!! I really enjoyed reading your writing!! Have a good evening!! :)