Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Art and Science, A Common Language

In the beginning, art and science were one.  During the Renaissance the philosophies of art, architecture, engineering and science were all studied together, and this universal polymathy was the sign of the 'renaissance man' like artist Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci is best known as an artist whos works were informed by scientific investigation. For him science and art were different paths that led to the same destination.  While he walked down "both" paths of art and science he designed the cannon, a machine gun, gliders, a turnspit for roasting meat, canal systems for irrigation and the parachute.  Maybe he was more on the art path of life when he purposely bought caged birds and set them free. Another profound example is a painting called "The Astronomer" by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer who clearly celebrated the astronomer and exploratory spirit of science. Back then, the development of knowledge went hand-in hand with the arts and even by the 19th century you were as likely to go to a lecture on the latest  scientific discovery as one on art or exploration. By late 1800's  however, something disruptive happened, and a separation occurred between the two disciplines. During the 20th century the trend continued and eventually it became more difficult to study arts and science simultaneously. Finally it became acceptable to not understand something important merely because it was 'scientific', yet stylish to feign the study of art.
Given the nature of the two subjects and are how closely tied they once were, it seems there should be a word meaning both, and maybe there was a word once. Long ago the Greeks used a word called "Techne" from which technology and technique are derived, but there is no one word that denotes the two disciplines together as one entity today. Science is seen as dealing with organization and rules, things that are well defined and predictable, whereas art is seen as freedom to act more intuitively. The Oxford English dictionary  (c.1950), for example gives one definition of an artist as 'one who pursues a practical science' and provides science as a one word meaning of 'craft'. It's generally accepted that science is a branch of study which brings together demonstrated truths and observed facts which are systematically classified and unified under general laws, while creativity in the arts is intensely personal, reflecting the feelings and the ideas of the artist. By contrast, scientific creativity is always constrained by self-consistency and trying to understand nature, and what is already known. A scientist name Feynman once summed it up by saying that science is imagination in a straight jacket. But relativity and quantum physics cannot be understood through art. It can only be understood by speaking mathematics, a language I'm sure even scientists find difficult. But up close science and art are both a means of investigation and both transform information into something else. Einstein once said the most beautiful thing we can ever experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science. So the unknown, the mysterious is another place where art and science meet again. And again and again. To what extent is vision shaped by science, or by art? And how does science offer us a different view of our place in the universe? Only an artist will create this vision, and let in lay there in your minds eye, in a book, a painting or a movie. Art can appear in the same school of thought dedicated to asking the big questions, and searching for answers. Artists can serve as partners in the communication of research, and the navigation of the unknown. History proves an enduring relationship I think is important.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Don't Forget About Venus

If you're familiar with astronomy you'll know Earth is the third planet from the sun. Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, and quite a bit cooler. The Mars equator is fairly warm though - at about 80F during the day, and the gravity isn't half bad - or to be more exact about 1/3rd of ours-so putting a few brave astronauts on its surface in a few years seems like a plausible idea. The carbon dioxide atmosphere isn't breathable and you'd need a decent pressure suit, but it's doable. Maybe we could use one of those fantastic tight fitting suits being made by Dava Newman, but for now Mars is a healthy obsession for science fiction writers and scientists alike for ideas with colonization, or human exploration. What's also really interesting is finding an new unexpected discovery, and her name is Venus.
Venus, the second planet from the sun is much like our planet. Also known as our sister planet she is about the same size and almost exactly the same gravity, but she is a neighbor I think most people have forgotten about, but sometimes she will remind you. She will be the brightest point among the stars at times. With Venus you only have to look left instead of right. So what if we also looked in a different direction?
Discovering Venus and making some connections became an inspiration for my fourth story I'm calling "Modified". It might seem a little surprising to some, but the creative process for me is usually a sequence of events that unfolds like tiny connections. So I'll give you the dots. At first, it had to do with helping my son do his homework one night. Originally published in 1954, his assignment was reading a science fiction story by Ray Bradbury called "All Summer In A Day."  Ray Bradbury wrote the Martian Chronicles and has been called one of the world's greatest science fiction writers of all time. But what's most important about this story in my case was "All Summer In A Day" is all about a colony on Venus. Oh right. No wait, I mean left! That other planet, the hellish hot one. Hold on...Venus?
My curiosity was peeked after we read the story, so I looked up the words Venus and colony on the internet. And here is where science fiction and science just seems to blur at times. Turns out a U.S. scientist named Geoffrey Landis, of the Nasa Glenn Research Center, has confirmed that human exploration of Venus could take place from aerostat vehicles in the atmosphere and long term permanent settlements could be made in the form of cities, designed to float around the planet. According to his research, a one-kilometer diameter gas filled spherical envelope could lift 700,00 tons. (two Empire State Buildings), and  a two-kilometer diameter envelope would lift 6 million tons, the size of a modest city. Although the surface of Venus is an extremely hostile environment, at about 50 kilometers above the planet's surface, he says the atmosphere has an earth like environment. There are a few pitfalls listed however, and lets not forget Venus is not called the hell planet for nothing. A poisonous atmosphere made up of mostly carbon dioxide with sulfuric acid rain droplets in the clouds for one thing, for which we could wear protective clothing for, but for another, oxygen would have to be shipped in, which is mostly absent from the Venusian atmosphere. However, in other respects, Landis says the environment is perfect for humans. At cloud-top level, Venus seems to be the paradise planet, with abundant solar energy.
This is just too much good stuff for a science fiction writer, because we hardly need more to picture the rest. We have been given desert before the main course, and reading further about Venus intensifies ideas, and ignites the imagination. The facts however remain the facts, and besides a multitude of other scientists like Paul Birch, or meteorologist Paul Crutzen, who long ago researched the idea of terraforming Venus, as early as 1970 we actually landed there. The Russians were the first to send several sophisticated unmanned landers to its surface, like the Venera-9, but surface temperatures  and massive atmospheric pressures crushed and melted them like tin cans in about two hours. The good news is, these incredible machines still managed to send back pictures and study the soil before they expired, and you can find them posted right online.
In any case, in just under two hours these machines gave us all we needed. Given the stories, the research, and the landings, lets not forget the possibilities. I'm certainly not.