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: