Recent Work By David Rothenberg

Chapter 6: Can Art Really Influence Science?

Most scientists I asked about whether art had truly influenced science said in general, no, because they recognize the fundamental difference between the enterprises more than most artists, and the rest of us, do.  We are entranced by parallel images from subatomic particles and Zen brush painting, but we don’t think through the fundamental oppositions of such activities.  Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability.  Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart.  You can analyze, you can test it, you can try to explain it, but the greatness will be more than the sum of its parts.  It may be an easy gesture, or a labored effort, be done in minutes with the turn of the hand or a sudden glance.  As much as one may speak of similar gestures in science, they represent an aesthetic part of the scientific work, not the main gist of it.

Science and art have different criteria for truth. They present their conclusions with a different sort of stance, a different weight.  An artist can convince by the splendor of his work, or just the conviction of this presentation. Even the image of a whole that doesn’t quite make sense, and cannot exist apart from its presentation.  Like a fine bird song, which has no message or meaning outside its performance. It is what it is, and if it touches enough who experience it, it will endure.  But not science.  Every conclusion is subject to the intense scrutiny of the whole field, and will most likely be superseded by new discoveries over time.  In science there is most definitely progress.  In art, we recognize changes in taste over time, but not aesthetic advancement.

Most of us would not say today’s art is better than that made in the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods.  It is certainly different, and we may or may not prefer different things today. Art is primarily expressive and evocative, not needing to be useful and informative.  But I would like it to help us, to improve our lot, in a way to progress. I want to imagine it can change the way we see the world, and improve our understanding. So should it then at least sometimes positively influence science? Taylor and his colleagues believe Pollock anticipated the discoveries of fractal mathematics, though maybe he is instead saying that what is great in Pollock’s wild imagery is the fractal naturalness of it, which is more like an accidental secret code than a real insight.  In the end he too is showing how mathematics might explain art, giving science the upper hand, a kind of solid exact power that comes with science’s ability to do things, to make things, to physically improve the world.  Compared to the changes in our world that science has wrought, art can seen downright frivolous, but it does make us laugh and cry.

One scientist who has thought quite deeply on this is the Nobel prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman, who has also published several books of poetry and is famous for organizing the monthly “Entertaining Science” events at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, one of the longest-running series of informal gatherings to present science and downtown culture together, the forerunner of the great “Science Festivals” now popping up in major cities all over the world.  Chemistry, he says, surprisingly, is often all about drawing. The vocabulary of chemistry can get so technical that even its practicitioners cannot understand all the words in a typical journal article in the field!  But when they see molecules drawn, with their elements and their interconnections, in the standard and universally understood way, then it all makes sense.  Chemists are trained connoisseurs of a particular kind of illustration, which, in its universality, has more currency in explaining its concepts than the confusing gobbledegook of words, which outsiders like to call jargon.  Even within the field it is jargon, and there are too many terms to ever know.  The image is the key, the drawing tells all.

“The communication of molecules’ architectonic essence by little iconic drawings (rather than photographs or etchings), and by ball and stick models, is of proven value – remember it’s been more than half a century since the Watson and Crick paper. They didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being,” writes Hoffman in a special issue of the journal Hyle on aesthetics in chemistry.  “It never ceases to amaze me how a community of people who are not talented at drawing, nor trained to do so, manages to communicate faultlessly so much three-dimensional information.”

He is amazed, but also shocked by his colleagues’ resistance to a more aesthetic approach to the world.  Why is it, he wonders, “that people who have learned to communicate visually in such a variety of artistic styles—chemists—are not more tolerant of expressionist and abstract artistic ways of communicating knowledge and emotion?”  I would say it is the classic sense that in science the march of knowledge is rigorous and cumulative, while an artist can just get up there and say something, make a gesture, do something different or out of whack, and demand to be taken seriously and his culture will sometimes take him seriously, without needing to ask all these questions that situate the work in its context.  Art does not work the same way as science, so if you talk about their relationship or how to combine them, you will want to tell your audience if what you present is to be taken as science, or as art, and in each case it will need to be enjoyed or assessed differently.  This is not to favor one or the other ways of knowing, just to recognize that they will always be different, and if something is to be both art and science then it will have to allow these two different ways of interpretation.

So as a musician, I can sail off the coast of Hawaii and try to play music live with humpback whales, and sometimes I get those whales to sing along with me and the interspecies results might once in a while be interesting to listen to as a kind of music that crosses many aesthetic lines.  All I have to do is get one beautiful recording, show that it really is a live interaction between human and whale, and present the work as such. It might be successful. Is the whale really responding to my clarinet?  How is he adjusting his song in response to mine?  To say something scientific about this, I’m going to have to go out on hundreds of trips and collect a lot of data of whale/human interactions that can be statistically analyzed. To turn this into a scientific experiment, such data is essential. Only then could I make more objective conclusions about what I hear as beautiful. As an art experiment, one beautiful human/whale duet is enough.  It is easier in that it takes less time, but you have to be musically prepared to take such a thing seriously.  That’s the harder part.

Hoffman has thought much more deeply on this. He has considered how science might learn far more subtlety from art.  After being amazed by how much chemists can express to each other using drawing, a fundamentally artistic techniques, he thinks more daringly on how art might inform science.  What of abstraction?  We have spoken of abstract art for more than a century—can there also be something called abstract science? For one, we cannot really be sure any art is really abstract; if it doesn’t represent the appearance of nature, does it not idealize nature by seeking to exalt pure form one way or another?

Abstraction, when it was introduced, seemed to be put forth as in opposition to something, a more naïve notion that art could basically represent the world.  So, let’s try for an abstract science.  Is there any sense in which chemistry could be seen as in opposition to something?  It too is sometimes opposed to nature. Hoffman says: “Chemists in the laboratory are torn between emulating nature and doing things their own way. A protein, through its own curling and its tool kit of sidechain options, shapes a pocket where, say, a molecule with only right-handed symmetry fits. But it not only fits, it has something done to it—a specific bond in that molecule is cleaved, or an atom is delivered to it. The chemist’s fun, much like abstract art, is in achieving the same (why not better?) degree of shape control that nature does, but doing it differently, perchance better, in the laboratory.”  With greater abstraction may come greater fun.

And greater attention to form and simplification, the basis of science’s tendency to break things down into their simplest parts.  Yet it is not the elegance of the rules that most impresses Hoffman, but the sense that the playing of the game can trump the results, like Hermann Hesse’s vision of the mysterious spiritual/technical activity he introduced in The Glass Bead Game, an activity never quite defined but consuming its players like a whole sci/art culture, always a vision that impressed me for years as a college student, especially the fact that it could never quite be described because its totality was so immense.  So it’s either a metaphor for life itself, or a call to generate the great games of today, intricate structures in cyberspace or playing themselves upon total digital machines.  But that’s still probably not it, it’s still more likely that great sense you feel when, against all odds, all the processes one thinks through at any given moment suddenly seem to make sense, and all fit together like some great “aha” moment that finally really works.

Hoffman gazes at the cool geometrical forms of Rothko, amazed by their exactness and fuzziness at once.  Art has evolved to depict tendencies, hazy eminences like the unclear parts of the brain that may light up when one or another thought process happens.  Science of the mind not like a device, with gears and cogs churning the machinations of thought, no, hazy areas on the screen light up, we have a glimmer of idea we might begin to chart. Data? A diagram? Proof, some clear result?  Not really, but a century where art can be blurry and with this blurriness offer a new kind of precise meaning inspires many disciplines of science where inexactness does not stop us.


Roald Hoffman, “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry,” Hyle, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, p. 7.

Roald Hoffman, “Abstract Science,” American Scientist, vol. 97, no. x, 2009, p. 450.

Ch. 6, Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, © 2011. Used with permission by Bloomsbury Press


What made you want to write a book on beauty?

This world is a beautiful place.  Sometimes that is easy to forget.  I have always wanted to be able to explain this beauty as something objective, a fact, a quality about the way the world evolved, not just some subjective human opinion.  It turned out that realization of beauty was one of the motivating factors behind Darwin’s discovery of evolution, a fact that science seems to have forgotten.  I wanted to bring this history back into today’s discussion about what life is and how it got here.


You’re a musician.  What are you doing writing about visual art?

Right, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  But everyone around me is a visual artist—my mother is a painter, my father was an architect, my wife is an artist, I grew up with discussions of modernism and postmodernism and surrealism and impressionism all around the house.  Over the years I became fascinated with the idea that paying attention to abstract twentieth century art has led us to see nature in a new way, and I was surprised no one had written about this.  I really wanted to see in what ways art has specifically influenced science, and how it might have more influence in the future.


Isn’t the ‘beautiful’ a kind of old-fashioned concept when it comes to talking about art today?

So they say, but I believe that the most enduring conceptual/situationist artworks will be those that leave a direct aesthetic impression on the viewer.  They still have to be beautiful if these works expect to survive.


How does it feel to criticize scientists when you yourself are not a scientist?

Yes, sometimes scientists have gotten angry with me when I make outlandish claims like “you people are not asking the most interesting questions.”  Who do I think I am?  In my earlier book Why Birds Sing I was more critical of science when it comes to what it wasn’t asking about bird song, but now, six years later, I find myself collaborating with bird song neuroscientists trying to develop new approaches to analyze the deeper, musical structure of this beautiful natural phenomena, the kind of structure scientists previously refused to recognize.  So maybe my prodding is having a little bit of influence.

It has long been my belief that among the many human forms of knowledge—art, music, poetry, science, philosophy, religion—no one approach will encompass the others.  Often the practitioners of each seem to think theirs is the best or most total way.  That sense of primacy or entitlement can never be completely correct.  Our minds and senses are too diverse for that.

I want to explore how art might best influence science.  Too often when these disparate approaches are combined the blending is either too easy: “art and science both value elegance and creativity” or else too condescending:  “artists dare to dream and play Reality is far more nuanced and interesting than that.


There are a lot of pictures in your book, how do those connect with the words?

If you put all the pictures together and gaze at each of them for a while before moving onto the next, you may be able to get the same ideas as the words describe in greater detail.


What should science really learn from art?

The beauty in a moment’s creative expression may be unique and unrepeatable, but in that moment’s greatness can exist an important truth which must be accepted, even though it may never happen again.

Art can sometimes accomplish the impossible, and then science should not deny it but can try to explain it, as long as the method of explanation does not serve to remove the magic from the aesthetic moment.


What should art learn from science?

Art can learn diligence, perception of details, asking of questions, and perhaps above all the subjecting of any wild idea against the test of rationality or data.  Don’t just trust your instincts!  Don’t get stuck on your own ideas!  Look, listen, wait, think, scrutinize.  Your goal of expressing an essential insight that can be expressed no other way can easily take itself too seriously and not pay enough attention to the real world.  Science should teach you to question your own assumptions and really learn from careful attention to the way nature works, not just the way it appears.


What do you want the reader to get from your book?

To look up from the pages and see the world in a whole new way, where beauty is a fact, and science and art both conspire to reveal different aspects of this same, genuine fabric all around us.


What are you working on next?

Something much easier than a whole theory of art, science, and evolution!  Back to something I know more about… how to make music with bugs…. should be out in time for the return of the seventeen years cicadas to New York in 2013.  You can watch a preview here: