Does science need art to answer fundamental questions?

Violin and Playing Cards, Cubist painting by Juan Gris That’s the question posed in this fascinating article by Jonah Lehrer at SEED Magazine. Riffing on the possibility that Niels Bohr may have been influenced by his interest in Cubism when he came up with his new model of the atom, Lehrer argues that science needs art in order to answer the most fundamental questions:

Physicists study the fabric of reality, the invisible laws and particles that define the material world. Neuroscientists study our perceptions of this world; they dissect the brain in order to understand the human animal. Together, these two sciences seek to solve the most ancient and epic of unknowns: What is everything? And who are we?

But before we can unravel these mysteries, our sciences must get past their present limitations. How can we make this happen? My answer is simple: Science needs the arts. We need to find a place for the artist within the experimental process, to rediscover what Bohr observed when he looked at those cubist paintings. The current constraints of science make it clear that the breach between our two cultures is not merely an academic problem that stifles conversation at cocktail parties. Rather, it is a practical problem, and it holds back science’s theories. If we want answers to our most essential questions, then we will need to bridge our cultural divide. By heeding the wisdom of the arts, science can gain the kinds of new insights and perspectives that are the seeds of scientific progress.

(Via Idea Festival.)

What do you think? Is he on to something, or is this just a romantic plea to an unromantic world to put art back on the pedestal of importance it once occupied?

(Image: “Juan Gris: Violin and Playing Cards (1995.403.14)”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.)

[tags]art,science,physics, neuroscience[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Does science need art to answer fundamental questions?”

  1. Jonah Lehrer knows nothing about science if he think that looking at paintings of nude women will bring us any closer to pharmacological nanomachines.

  2. It is not impossible that in some special cases art might give the right impulse to thing outside the right corner of the box at hand, but art is not a method to do science. Instead, I think that art (and not only high art, also the popular culture stuff like comics and skiffy movies) is an interpretation of life, a reflection of our world view — including science.

  3. I think that science necessarily relies on culture to say which problems are fundamental in the first place (and what is margin scribbling), and that art’s reflection of culture can give cues into what is generally being thought about. I don’t think it should be surprising that the era of abstract art and many breakthroughs fundamentals and foundations in physics and logic occurred together, just as generative/data-oriented/situated approaches are having their impact now in both science and art. However, I don’t know if there is as often direct inspiration, instead of the engaged scientist or artist continually thinking and observing their surroundings, with little ability to stop except for in the most escapist conditions (like Bohr at the westerns).

  4. Art is crucial to everything, not just science. However, since the understanding gleaned through art isn’t linear, it may be tricky to map the process. Then again, a lot of the great minds of science developed their theories based on leaps of inspiration.

    Those questioning the relationship might want to look at the New Humanities Institute being developed at Binghamton University by biology professor David Sloan Wilson and English professor Leslie Haywood. Natalie Angier writes about it here.

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