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.