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.
Emile Zola’s definition of art: “Nature as seen through a temperament,” 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 technique used by both.
— Leonard Shlain, RIP (boingboing)
— Goodbye, Leonard Shlain — you were an original. And a mensch
— Conversations with History – Leonard Shlain