Creativity special: One culture
29 October 2005
What is scientific creativity?
It involves the same kind of elements as artistic creativity. Both the scientist and the artist are trying to represent the reality beyond appearances. I believe that at the moment of creative insight, boundaries dissolve between disciplines and both artists and scientists search for new modes of aesthetics. That was certainly the case with Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. They were both trying to understand the true properties of space, and to reconcile them with how space is seen by different observers. Einstein discovered relativity and Picasso discovered cubism almost simultaneously.
Has scientific creativity ever been sparked by art?
Cubism directly helped Niels Bohr discover the principle of complementarity in quantum theory, which says that something can be a particle and a wave at the same time, but it will always be measured to be either one or the other. In analytic cubism, artists tried to represent a scene from all possible viewpoints on one canvas. An observer picks out one particular viewpoint. How you view the painting, that’s the way it is. Bohr read the book by Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes on cubist theory, Du Cubisme. It inspired him to postulate that the totality of an electron is both a particle and a wave, but when you observe it you pick out one particular viewpoint.
So scientists can benefit by thinking in artistic terms?
Sometimes scientific discoveries are made through visual design. For instance, there’s the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram in astrophysics. It’s a graph that basically plots the temperature versus brightness of a star. It was invented when Henry Russell had only 10 minutes to give a speech and 300 stars to show. He plotted them all onto one diagram just to condense the information. When he did, this whole collection of stars assumed a shape, fell into a specific sequence. The interpretation of that diagram has become a major topic in astrophysics.
Another example is Harry Kroto, who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996. Kroto’s first love was graphic design. That gave him a real advantage in science. Artistic insight helped him construct a three-dimensional image from two-dimensional data to deduce the design of carbon-60. Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and form gain a creative edge.
Does it happen the other way around, with science inspiring creativity in art?
Marcel Duchamp had read some works on relativity and the influence is obvious in his Nude Descending a Staircase. Wassily Kandinsky was also very much influenced by relativity, and particularly by E=mc2. He took that equation to mean that everything is fundamentally amorphous, so that’s what he painted. Technology has always profoundly affected art. Today there’s a movement in computer art that is held back only by the pace of the technology.
What do scientists and artists have in common?
They see reality in new ways. While everyone else saw a pendulum swinging back and forth, Galileo saw it falling and rising. In that way he was able to do breakthrough work on the nature of falling bodies. Every great artist has seen the world in a new way. That’s exactly what Einstein did, too. His early papers were very conceptual, especially the 1905 paper on special relativity. It has very few equations, and the data that he used had been around for years. He just saw the problems in a new way.
In art and in science, discoveries are made by breaking the rules. But what’s interesting about Einstein and Picasso, and other highly creative people, is that they can’t seem to follow their discoveries through to the logical conclusions. Picasso never crossed the Rubicon and entered into abstract expressionism. Einstein didn’t believe in quantum mechanics as the final atomic theory, nor in the most spectacular consequence of general relativity, the black hole. It seems that genius burns brightly for a while and then burns out. The young revolutionary becomes conservative.
Arthur Miller is emeritus professor in history and philosophy of science at University College London. His latest book is Empire of the Stars (Little Brown in UK, Houghton Mifflin in US, 2005)
From issue 2523 of New Scientist magazine, 29 October 2005, page 44