Sunday, February 07, 2010

Art and Science

Does the following give you the feeling that someone is railing about something?

"It bugs me," Koop told the Guardian. "It's the molecular building blocks that shape these crystals and they can't form any shape other than a hexagon."

In a letter to Nature, Koop points out that the hexagonal shape of snowflakes has been known for at least 400 years when Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, published his mini-treatise on the subject, "On the six-cornered snowflake".

"Beautiful photographs abound, including those taken by Vermont farmer Wilson A Bentley starting in 1885 ... Why then do many artists invent their own physically unrealistic snow crystals?"

Railing? Yes? No? At least, I do not think Koop was railing. It sounds like the voice of a man of reason who is troubled by bad art. 'Bad' is the operative word.

The news report published just before Christmas 2009, claims that the scientist railed. The dictionary defines railed as "complained bitterly". Well, diction is a matter of personal taste and I am ready to let go of it. But I take issue with the opening paragraphs of the report:

"The fragile truce between science and art came under strain today when common depictions of snowflakes threatened to divide the two cultures over the festive season.

In the latest salvo between the warring factions, Christmas card manufacturers, advertising agencies and children's book publishers are accused of corrupting nature with "incorrect designer versions" of snowflakes that defy the laws of physics."

Truce? Fragile? Salvo? Warring factions? Common depiction? What are we talking about?

How does this report matter to anyone and especially me? It so happens that I am passionate about science and I am passionate about art. If there was a war between them, I would be schizophrenic of sorts. But I firmly believe that I am no schizophrenic. There is no war inside my head. (Sure, most mentally ill people do not really believe that they are ill. So, you need not take my word for it!) And I see no war between the two cultures. Here is the origin of the phrase "The Two Cultures".

First, let us get one fact right. Most often, artists depict snow crystals with six corners. Frankly, I have not noticed the offending non-six pointed depictions. Of course, I do not receive many Christmas cards. When I do, what I see are six pointed snow crystals. That is neither here nor there.

Historically there have been numerous instances of collaboration of sorts between art and science. For many great scientists science was an artistic endeavour. Many of them were simultaneously artists and scientists. The biggest name of them all is, of course, Leonardo. If there was a war between the so called factions there would be debates about "Was Leonardo an artist who was also a scientist or was he a scientist who was also an artist", perhaps. I have not come across any such debate.

Science being an artistic endeavour brings to mind G H Hardy, the mathematician. He is perhaps famous in India as the man who discovered Ramanujan. Hardy was always very proud of the fact that his work was completely useless! For him, his mathematics was purely a search for beauty of numbers and their properties. Some years ago, one of Hardy's works was found to be useful in solving an esoteric problem in computing. The news paper report about it even wondered if Hardy would be turning in his grave! Art, quite often, is also completely useless. Like applied mathematics which helps people of other professions and pursuits find solutions to their problems, applied art helps people do other things, like selling a product or an idea sometimes.

A family friend who was a well travelled, brilliant biochemist once told me that in his experience he had met many really good scientists who could easily have chosen a career in music but, had chosen science.

Just for the record, I would like to list here some great scientist - artists of the world. I am sure no one will have an objection if I included creative writers in the art "faction".

The most prolific science writer of them all, Isaac Asimov, a doctorate in Bio Chemistry, was also a prolific science fiction writer.

Nearer home, you could count Jayant Narlikar in the same category.

Goethe, the greatest of German men of letters, once spent a few months in Goettingen working on a problem connected with the sun. I have no idea how good he was as a scientist but there was no war between the factions there.

Charles Darwin once regretted that once he started thinking about and writing the Origin of Species, he could no longer read novels and poetry which he had once enjoyed. This looks like a contradiction of my own claim that there is no war between the factions. We must note that Darwin said this with great regret. The war here is between the method of science and the madness (oh what beautiful madness) of art. (I must add that not all art is all madness. It needs hard work but of a different kind. For instance, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and edited it three times. Each time, his wife made fair copy of the whole manuscript. Did these people have a different clock which ran much slower than ordinary clocks? I have postponed reading WaP to my post-retirement plans - not having enough time right now!)

Recently, Ruth Padel, Darwin's great granddaughter was in India and she writes poetry about her great great-grand-father and his life and work, among other things. No sir, no war between the two cultures there.

One of the most famous names in the visual arts and science is the German scientist-artist, Ernst Haeckel, whose pictures of plants and animals are perhaps unparalelled. You will perhaps never know if it was an artistic endeavour or a scientific endeavour for him.

A maverick of sorts and one of the legendary scientists of the modern era, Richard Feynman, learnt to play drums and while trying to teach some science to an artist ended up learning enough art to make some very good looking pictures.

Nearer home again, Kuvempu was very well read in science for laymen and had a lifelong interest in it. (He was instrumental in influencing my father to read popular science books and also take up science writing) Pu Ti Na, another great Kannada poet had an abiding interest in science and you can discern that in some of his poems too.

Is a naturalist a scientist? If yes, Audubon, perhaps, is known more as a painter of nature (See paintings here) was an avid nature lover and observer and painted it too. (The American non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservancy is known as the Audubon society)

Perhaps the greatest name in science, Einstein, himself was a violinist of some accomplishment. I have always wondered how good he was as a violinist. Because he is a legend, his violin playing abilities could be the stuff of legend. But there is this story about how Einstein was concerned that an unknown young stranger next to him said that he did not understand music and took the trouble to give the young man a crash course in music listening shows that there is no war there!

Homi J Bhabha, one of India's greatest scientists, considered to be the father of India's atomic energy programme, was a trained pianist and a painter. Once, he painted a portrait of C V Raman and presented it to Raman. Raman was admiring it when Bhabha said, "That is the portrait of a great scientist by an artist". Raman retorted, "No, it is the portrait of an artist by another artist". Both took their art seriously and were proud of being artists! Raman conducted considerable research on the vibration of the membranes of percussion instruments. The interest in the topic was born more out of artistic interests than scientific interests, is my guess. Raman's wife was a well trained Veena player and Raman was very (inordinately?) proud of that fact.

If you make certain changes in the quoted passage about which I have 'railed' here, and replaced the word art with religion, it might make a lot more sense. That, of course, will also be contentious!

Yes Sir, art and science appear to be two divergent cultures. But at the heart of both is a search for truth and beauty. Their methods are different, means are different. But, NO SIR, there is no war between them and no salvos.

What Koop is "railing" at is not art but BAD art. He would rail equally, if not more, vehemently against bad science or non-science (sounds very close to nonsense, does it not?) and non-science trying to pass itself off as science, I am sure. I am certain that any self respecting artist who looked at five cornered and eight cornered (pentagonal and octagonal, Ahem!) snow crystals would be riled and would rail at it. Not at art per se.

Let me end with a piece of news that caught my attention recently. The latest Indian (born) Nobel Prize winner dashed to India recently to attend his son's Cello concert. Father and son at loggerheads and in opposite camps? No sir.

No Sir, there is and was no war, no truce, no salvos. Dare I say it? The report under discussion is as bad a piece of journalism as a piece of art depicting five cornered snow crystal?


  1. Excellent! In medicine, you often come across people who are able to achieve results having ignored all scientific evidence available. This is often termed the 'art' of medicine. I think you call it 'art' where an enormously perceptive person sees things differently, but cannot find conventional ways of telling others why. And yes, I have a friend, a superb neurosurgeon, who could have been a concert pianist or a painter, had he chosen to do so. Another example - of Brian May from Queen who recently completed his Ph.D in astrophysics.

  2. well done! How did you miss Shivarama karanth?

  3. Indeed.
    Do include Desmond Morris! The zoologist who till recently was one of my favourite authors, but is now my favourite surrealist painter!
    Just this morning I watched 'Click' on BBC, where the presenter talked about the line between art and science becoming blur and showed this:
    While looking for it on the web, I happened to find this:

  4. Anonymous1:52 am

    I don't see any dichotomy between Science and Art. At some level, Science is Art, and Art is Science. If someone thinks that there is a clear boundary between the two, then I guess they have limited understanding of both Science as well as Art.....Science is 'beautiful' and Art is 'scientific'.....good post!

  5. Anonymous6:26 am

    Awesome post! Did we forget Poornachandra Tejaswi here!

  6. Can we rename Koop as 'koop-a-manduka' for having a rather narrow field of vision?