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From teh classical Greek sculptors to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and from Aristotle to Einstein, aritsts have foreshadowed the discoveries of scientists, such as when Money and Cezanne intuited the coming upheaval ...
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From teh classical Greek sculptors to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and from Aristotle to Einstein, aritsts have foreshadowed the discoveries of scientists, such as when Money and Cezanne intuited the coming upheaval in physics that Einstein would initiate. In this lively and colorful narrative, Leonard Shlain explores how artistic breakthroughs could have prefigured the visionary insights of physicists on so many occasions throughtout history.
Provacative and original, Art & Physics is a seamless integration of the romance of art and the drama of science...and exhilarating history of ideas.
Art interprets the visible world, while physics charts its unseen workings--making the two realms seem completely opposed. But in Art & Physics, Shlain tracks their breakthroughs side by side throughout history to reveal an astonishing correlation of visions. He explores art's strange clairvoyance by invoking evolutionary theory, split-brain research, philosophy and mythology. Photos and illustrations.
The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.--James Baldwin
Physics is a form of insight and a such it's a form of art.--David Bohm
Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense. Even the stereotypical proponents of each endeavor are polar opposites. In college, the hip avant-garde art students generally do not mingle with their more conventional counterparts in the physics department. By casual juxtaposition, these two fields seem to have little in common: There are few if any references to art in any standard textbook of physics; art historians rarely interpret an artist's work in light of the conceptual framework of physics.
Yet despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, "Organized perception is what art is all about."' Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions.While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.
Paul Gauguin once said, "There are only two kinds of artists--revolutionaries and plagiarists." The art discussed in this book will be that created primarily by revolutionaries, because theirs is the work that heralds a major change in a civilization's worldview. And in parallel fashion, although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society's concept of reality. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke referred to this sort of transcendent insight as a "conflagration of clarity," allowing certain artists and physicists to see what none before them had ever imagined, and it is they--the revolutionary artist and the visionary physicist--who will be paired in the coming pages.
Smile Zola's definition of art, "Nature as seen through a temperament,"4 invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word physis means "nature." Beginning with this common ground as a point of departure, I will describe the connections and differences between these two seemingly disparate ways our perceptions of nature are organized.
The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break "nature" down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the techniques used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "There is no science without fancy and no art without facts."
Insofar as science is the subject, I shall concentrate in this book on physics as it has developed during the last several hundred years. Nevertheless, the reader should keep in mind that present-day physicists wear a mantle that has been passed down through the ages. Physicists are the modern representatives of a distinguished tradition that winds its way back through the first scientists, Christian theologians, natural philosophers, pagan priests, and Paleolithic shamans, the exceptional of whom have contributed pieces to fill in the infinite jigsaw puzzle of nature. The first physicist was probably the one who discovered how to make a fire.
I single out physics in particular because in this century all the other "hard" sciences have learned that they are anchored to this rock. Chemistry had its beginning in the attempt to identify and separate the elements, and it came to be fused to the laws that govern atomic events. Astronomy began as a fascination with heavenly movements and advanced to an inquiry into the arrangement of the solar system. Today, in studying the galaxies, astrophysicists address the laws that govern forces and matter. From its origins in Aristotelian taxonomy, biology has evolved to the study of the physical interaction of atoms in molecular biology. Physics, formerly one branch among many, has in this century become enthroned as the King of the Sciences.
In the case of the visual arts, in addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting reality, 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. Whether for an infant or a society on the verge of change, a new way to think about reality begins with the assimilation of unfamiliar images. This collation leads to abstract ideas that only later give rise to a descriptive language.
For example, observe any infant as it masters its environment. Long before speech occurs, a baby develops an association between the image of a bottle and a feeling of satisfaction. Gradually the baby accumulates a variety of images of bottles. This is an astounding feat considering that a bottle viewed from different angles changes shape dramatically: from a cylinder to an ellipse to a circle. Synthesizing these images, the child's emerging conceptual faculties invent an abstract image that encompasses the idea of an entire group of objects she or he will henceforth recognize as bottles. This step in abstraction allows the infant to understand the idea of "bottleness." Still without language, the baby can now signal desire by pointing.
Posted January 13, 2000
Many people find the insights of particle physics impossible to visualize and modern art difficult to talk about. Leonard Shlain has taken on these two imponderables and woven them together, demonstrating that artists give us new ways to 'see' the world at the same time [and, oddly, often before] scientists give us new ways to think about the world. From Euclidian space and the art of the Classical World, through Newtonian Mechanics and the Renaissance discovery of perspective, to Einstein's epiphanies and modern art's reordering of the world, this book is a stunner. Dr. Shlain's elegant prose is accompanied by well-chosen reproductions of artworks that help us visualize the spacetime continuum and other 'givens' that cannot be conceived using our ordinary three-dimensional ways of thinking. When words fail, images offer other ways of knowing. This, incidentally, is the theme of his later and equally insightful book 'The Alphabet Versus The Goddess.' In the historical duel between word and image, alphabetic literacy, with all its obvious benefits, has limited our ability to perceive the world as a whole and led to hierarchies of power and control. We need both and it's helpful to realize that, if we learn to 'read' the language of art, we can get clues about where our culture may be headed next. These two books have given me a much more fully-integrated sense of human history that will inform my teaching and writing in philosophy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 1999
Scientists and artists increasingly dwell in two separate realms, separate and unequal. Leonard Shlain does a service to both groups and educated laypersons with his wonderfully insightful Art and Physics. In the book's introduction, Shlain reports that the impetus for the book came after he took his daughter to an art museum. He knew the art was 'great' but couldn't intelligently respond to his daughter's question about what unifying themes made works from differnt eras 'great'. The answer, Shlain concludes convincingly in Art and Physics, is that art is considered great where it expresses for humanity new ways to understand space, time and light. Renaissance artists like Giotto helped humanity to understand perspective. Impressionists helped us understand the ephemeral nature of time. Similarly, physicists are considered great when their work (via equations and theories) enables humankind to better understand the nature of time and space. I found some explantions about art, philosophy, and science inaccurate at times, but anyone with a high school level education in art history, basic physics, and philosophy should be able to appreciate Shlain's basic points. The book is, after all, for a popular audience. Like Shlain's daughter, I too had difficulty identifying themes that made art 'great' but with Art and Physics, that's no longer the case.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.