Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, & Light

By Leonard Shlain
William Morrow & Company, October 1991.

Review by Howard Rheingold.

Scientists think about the world in new ways. The equations or experiments that express scientific thoughts can trigger cultural revolutions, change nature itself. Artists see and hear the world in new ways, and the way they convey their transformed perceptions in grace notes or brush strokes can help others experience a similar re-ordering of the senses. Science helps us understand how the world works. Art helps us interpret what reality means.

So goes the common wisdom.

But what if turns out that the scientists couldnŐt do what they do unless the artists first helped them to reperceive the universe? Leonard Shlain, author of Art & Physics makes a bold and persuasive case that art has always been a powerful if unacknowledged driving force behind science, rather than a kind of sideline commentary. At the conclusion of Art and Physics, the author ties his hypotheses together with a new theory about why humans have, in effect, two different brains. Shlain juxtaposes examples from the history of art with episodes from the history of science and a pattern seems to emerge strongly: the visionary breakthroughs of specific artists prepared everybody, including scientists, for the changes in thinking that scientists would introduce: "The artist, with little or no awareness of what is going on in the field of physics, manages to conjure up images and metaphors that are strikingly appropriate when superimposed upon the conceptual framework of the physicist's later revisions of our ideas about physical reality."

Throughout history, the way artists think about light, space, and time have set up a new mind set that led to the kinds of questions that led to scientific paradigm-shifts.

Art & Physics contrasts and compares Leonardo's theories with Newtonian mechanics, points out the parallels between Impressionism and quantum physics, and attempts to explain Monet's aesthetic mission and Einstein's intellectual framework in ways non-experts can understand. Much of the book is about European painting, with chapters devoted to tracing the same connections through sculpture, music, drama, and literature.

This is not new territory. Cultural historians such as O.B. Hardison and shelves full of French theorists have pointed out that upheavals in art history over the past 500 years have always been intertwined with other cultural upheavals, particularly those caused by science and technology. It is one thing, however, to point out an intriguing but inconsequential relationship between artistic and scientific evolution, and quite another thing to insist that the process of art is integral to the progress of science, and furthermore that both ways of seeing the world are not only complementary but hardwired into human brains.

Shlain presents his evidence that artists have created symbolic languages that have changed history and inspired scientists to create new symbolic frameworks such as physics: "In the case of the visual arts, in addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting realtiy, a few artists create a language of symbols for things for which there are yet to be words. Just as Sigmund Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents compared the progress of a civilization's entire people to the development of a single individual, I propose that the radical innovations of art embody the preverbal stages of new concepts that will eventually change a civilization...."

According to Shlain's hypothesis, the introduction of perspective into Western art by Giotto and Alberti prefigured the work of Galileo, and Leonardo DaVinci laid the groundwork for Newton. Manet's experiments with space and Monet's experiments with time were the initiation of a way of thinking that led to Einstein's theorems of spacetime. At the end of the book, Dr. Shlain directs attention to the idea that there is really no such thing as a primacy of art or physics, but both disciplines, each way of apprehending the world we experience, is part of a complementary pair. "Single Vision and Newton's Sleep," was the feared imbalance that William Blake bleakly prophesied at the dawn of the Industrial revolution. Shlain makes a rational case for the value of the irrational, intuitive, affective parts of our own nature, and the worldviews that grow with them.

Ironically, those artistic radicals whose innovations seem to have inspired scientific breakthroughs were scorned by their contemporaries. Enumerating six characteristics of the special theory of relativity that challenged the foundations of common sense, Shlain claims: "As radical as all these principals were, artists anticipated each and every one without any knowledge of this theory of science. With sibylline accuracy, revolutionary artists incorporated all these new perceptions of reality into the picture plane of their art. In my interpretation of art history, it was these very innovations that brought down upon their heads the scorn and ridicule of the public and critics alike, who could not know that they had been privileged to be the first to glimpse the shape of the future."

Is the world as we see it, or as we think it is? This issue was the crux of a two thousand year old competition of ideas. Physics won. Philosophers and artists havenŐt gone away since Newton swept the field, but most people today agree that a cure for cancer or a doomsday weapon is more significant than a symphony or a sculpture. There's a black irony at the heart of physics' victory, and we all know what it is: new ways to think about the world have proven to be dangerous, in the absence of new ways to perceive. Science has provided an overabundance of new ways of thinking. More than ever we all need to learn new ways to see, feel, and find meaning.

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