We often accept it as a fact of the world that the sciences and the humanities stand in opposition to each other. We go so far as to categorize individuals as “science people” or “humanities people” – instilling in each group some fear of, or at least intimidation by, the other (as tribal division so often does). We cloister young students into specialized “STEM” and “Arts” schools. There is frequently condescension from one category of academic discipline to the other: scientists believe the work of artists to be mere speculation; artists believe the scientists to be encumbered by dogma and fettered to a mistaken notion that we can arrive at absolute truths.
As a soon-to-be-professional scientist, as well as an armchair philosopher and wannabe artist, I have long been interested in the points in which the sciences and arts draws close to each other until they kiss: when the arts, hypocritically, descend into their own process of hypothesis testing and theory creation; when scientific explanation slips into poetry; those moments in which the absolute truth of science and the relativism of art cohabitate the same crevices.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French-Algerian philosopher whose explored the absurd, a philosophical term intended to express the inherent tension between the human desire to seek a stable notion of truth or some greater meaning in life, and the interminable inability to confidently tie down this truth or meaning. Camus gorgeously illustrates the way in which the process science becomes an exercise of creative expression in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus:
“You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science was there to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to the beginning.” The Myth of Sisyphus (20), Albert Camus
Camus seems to consider the notion that scientific explanation spirals into poetry as a disappointment – some indication of the failure of science, and thus in the whole truth-seeking enterprise. I, on the other hand, find the necessity of poetry in science to be a stunning illustration of the way in which we reflect the natural world in ourselves. We rely on poetry to render the scientific as real. The process of fixing abstract scientific concepts within imagery and time and space make those concepts immediate and conceivable. In other words, poetry is necessary for us to understand science. (If you’re feeling ambitious, read Machamer, Darden, and Craver’s articulation of the new mechanical philosophy for a formal philosophical treatment of this stuff.)
If you’re into this whole science-as-poetry thing, I’d highly suggest you pick up Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics, a very 1960’s collection of short stories narrated by a shape-shifting, all-knowing being named Qfqfq that is equal parts a work of retrospective science fiction, comedy, semiotic philosophy, and poetry. It has been one of the most pleasurable reading experiences that I have had in a while, due to passages such as:
“…at the bottom of each of those eyes I lived, or rather another me lived, one of the images of me, and it encountered the image of her, the most faithful image of her, in that beyond which opens up, past the semi-liquid sphere of the irises, in the darkness of the pupils, the mirrored hall of the retinas, in our true element which extends without shores, without boundaries.” The Cosmicomics: The Spiral, Calvino.
In the same aesthetic as Cosmicomics, photograhper Reuben Wu transforms images of landscapes familiar to our world into extraterrestrial visions with a romantic brush stroke of light or the incorporation of the trace of a planetary orbit.
This week try out New York-based percussionist Eli Keszler’s October release Stadium (Spotify, Youtube, Discogs), especially the track “Measurement Doesn’t Change the System at All” (an allusion to quantum mechanics, if I suspect correctly).
For those of us looking to escape the January chill, in least in your inner world, give a listen to Arooj Aftab’s most recent composition, Siren Islands (Spotify, Bandcamp). If one could inflate sound waves with air, I suspect it would sound something like this.
I have eagerly begun preparations for a trip to Japan following my graduation. As such, this charming, Microsoft Paint-style short film from Dante Zaballa further stoked my excitement.
In the same vein, enjoy this octopus from Masayo Fukuda, done in the style of kirie, a Japanese art of paper-cutting in which negative space is cut from a single piece of white paper to create an image.
I hope to see you next week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, or stray thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms in always appreciated as well. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!