RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

Special Issue - March 2004
  POINTS OF VIEW  -  Research in all its aspects

Artists express their unique inner self. Scientists discover a pre-existing, unbiased reality. Their objectives, methods and results differ. But are they not all researchers whose paths cross on occasion?

Helix nebula, captured by the Hubble telescope – ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature while dreaming before it’ (Paul Gauguin).   ESA
Helix nebula, captured by the Hubble telescope – ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature while dreaming before it’ (Paul Gauguin).

Being ‘scientifically correct’ requires that research results be presented without reference to the author's state of mind. Science is, after all, a logical, objective, rational pursuit. This façade can, nonetheless, be shattered, and some scientists show their passion, or even the chaotic aspect of their activity at times. Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, caused a scandal by publishing The Double Helix, in which he stated that ‘science, as I hope this work will demonstrate, rarely proceeds with the logic laymen attribute to it’. Far from the linearity of manuals, ongoing science is made up of doubts, mistakes, zigzags and confusion. This reality is the same as that of artistic creation. To poet Kenneth White, ‘chaos and the indiscriminate are at the source of all new creation’. In this he was echoed by mathematician Bark Kosko who rose up against the modesty of science: ‘There is no shame in admitting to what extent scientific progress depends on intuition. This needs to be taught in schools as much as mathematics’, whilst physicist Ludwig Boltzmann felt that ‘the cradle of theory is always fantasy’.

Pleasure and wonder
Just like artists, scientists can be rewarded by intense jubilation which, to some of them, appears to be the principal reason for their passion. ‘I am overcome by intense joy, a wild pleasure,’ noted biologist François Jacob, whilst chemist Michael Polyani spoke of the ‘feeling of extreme exaltation that a scientist can feel at the moment of discovery’.

If artists and scientists share passion as a driving force, they also share the same energy: emotion, a sense of wonder at the universe, this endless source of question marks. Both are able to tear down the walls erected by a process of socialisation which teaches us not to be surprised at anything. Observing nature is to rediscover a sense of wonder. Physicist Richard Feynman spoke of his ‘child-like fascination for the world as it is’, of the ‘pleasure of contemplating water in bathtubs or puddles on the pavement’. Poet Saint-John Perse had also perceived this convergence between scientists and artists: ‘They are probing the same abyss, only the methods of investigation differ.’

From this sense of awe, one indeed decides to study nature, and the other starts working in its image, thus extending creation. Leonardo da Vinci recommended to his students that they draw inspiration from patterns observed on old dilapidated walls. ‘Do not imitate nature, but work with it. Feel the branches grow,’ according to Picasso. Painter Dominique Maraval explained his paintings as a ‘series of supposedly hazardous or unconscious proposals, alternating with a series of consciously selections observing laws that are beyond me’.   

Fate and imagination
In other words experimenting is as important to artists as it is to scientists. Both multiply physical configurations that can potentially offer new insights or heady concepts. Both are equally open to a sudden twist of fate that can sometimes unexpectedly shake up the experiment. Mozart was able to draw inspiration from birds singing in the street to compose the theme of a concerto, and John Cage made fate his major source of inspiration. Numerous visual artists also use fate or suggestions taken from matter to forge ahead.

Scientists, too, depend on fate. Many discoveries – among which America, radioactivity and fossil radiation – have been the result of error, clumsy movements or coincidence. In the words of composer John Cage, an experiment is ‘a net that serves to catch the fish we do not yet know’. But to scientists, fate’s helping hand does not serve to create new structures, but to discover those that already exist. Scientists spend their life decoding what nature has coded and what artists likewise continue to code.

A testimony to this symmetry that unites them is their recourse to imagination, vital to both. To Baudelaire ‘imagination is the most scientific of faculties’, and, if Einstein could be believed, it is ‘the true soil of scientific germination’. The creator is one who sets out on an adventure, guided by intuition and attentive to fate. It is often by veering off the course, which is only outlined on the map, that he makes the greatest discoveries. But red herrings are numerous. In both art and science, culture and experience enable us to ‘guess’ which of our intuitions is likely to open up new avenues.

Abstraction and reality
Another essential mechanism to both approaches is the capacity for abstraction. ‘At the outset, the perception of things involves a choice within reality, itself conceived as an immeasurable unit, the totality of which we will never grasp,’ is how mathematician Pierre Lelong perceived it. Gauguin also said: ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature while dreaming before it.’ It is an abstraction that is accompanied by an interpretation that allows it to give meaning to reality, and even to exceed it. To Einstein, science arbitrarily draws certain groups of data from the labyrinth of sensorial information, attributing concepts to them which go well beyond sensations. In this sense, scientific theories are free creations. In this effort to recompose what has been isolated, the scientific approach is for that matter sometimes more audacious in its representations than art itself. 

While creation can be broken down into a selection process followed by extrapolation, it is particularly sensitive to certain kinds of stimuli. What attracts the attention of creators and is then ‘taken out’ of context is often the ordinary (structure, order, repetition) or else the unexpected (rupture, exception, what is atypical). In this way, the scientist's mission is often to explain both regularity and anomaly. Artists echo this theme: to author Jacques Roubaud ‘a familiar path is conducive to poetry, arousing recognition. A road never seen before creates another sentiment, that of surprise, also favourable to the capture of words. But differently.’

The death of truth, the end of beauty
Apart from these underlying structural trends which bring together artists and scientists to the extent that we could swap their quotes, certain developments also tend to reduce the gap between them. In particular, the quest for beauty or truth as absolute references has been seriously questioned during the 20th century.

In science, quantum physics has undermined the status of reality and its independence from the observer. On a small scale, nature becomes impossible to grasp. ‘We started with traditional science that was concerned with details. We are now moving towards a science that is analogous to Impressionism,’ says physicist Pierre-Gille de Gennes, whilst for philosopher Michel Bitbol, ‘science is more than ever identified with the deployment of what is possible, and less than ever with an immediate capture of numbers’. Was it not Nietzsche who described the idea that truth is the goal of science as the ‘noble metaphysical illusion’ of scientists? In art, creators have long ceased believing in the existence of beauty in its own right. Today, they explore creative space for itself and for the satisfaction they can derive from it.

At the same time, artists have always found a major source of inspiration in scientific discovery. In the 19th century, poet Coleridge attended lectures at the Royal Institution in order, in his words, to update his inventory of metaphors.   Nowadays, artists continue to take over the concepts, vocabulary and techniques of research. And scientists, albeit more rarely, turn to literature to extend their vocabulary, like the term quarks , borrowed from James Joyce. This use of scientific knowledge appears to respond, in a reflexive loop, to the creative capacity scientists observe in artists. In the words of science historian Michel Serres, ‘myths are full of knowledge and knowledge full of dreams and illusions’.