More on How Art and Science Know . . .

Stephen Nowlin/

Science, of course, investigates and knows about many things but let’s just take one category, astronomy. It’s likely that most of the planet’s current human population knows through education or at least general cultural awareness that the Earth orbits the Sun and the Moon goes around the Earth. And my guess is that (just speculation here, and despite sporadic droplets of broader knowledge many now encounter through contemporary sources like Discovery or Science channels, Facebook posts, CNN headlines, or fading Sagan-Cosmos memories), . . . that this simple Copernican Sun/Moon/Earth relationship is about the extent to which a majority of modern humans care or incorporate knowledge of astronomy or astrophysics into their personal existential identities. It seems remarkable to me that an earlier Earth and mythology-centered ontological framework inherited from a multi-millennial past has been so minimally disturbed by the thorough and revolutionary debunking it has experienced during the past one hundred-plus years of astronomical and astrophysical discovery. Throw in Darwinian biology and that’s easily six generations of exposure to radical new knowledge that fatally punctures history’s persistent and errant memes — yet still they linger and even dominate to cause untold confusion and its consequences.

In the discussion of how knowledge is embodied and communicated differently via science vs. art, I think it is worth recognizing that intellectual pedagogy does not seem to have been very effective when it comes to the task of prying people away from their inherited beliefs and enabling them to change paradigms and perspectives. For that challenge, I think emotion rather than intellect prevails — an emotional epiphany being a more likely successful agent of change than an intellectual disclosure, even when the latter possesses strong supportive evidence. People hang on to their stubborn attachments tenaciously in spite of well-articulated arguments to the contrary, but will relinquish them to emotional enlightenment and declare the experience to have been “profound.” So art has a significant potential role to play in exposing the poetic dimensions of science (which science itself is abysmal at accomplishing) — and which, it is important to emphasize, is not a practice of so-called Scientism or propagandistic marketing, or NewAge fuzzies, but simply recognition that in the scientific rational pursuit and puzzlement over how Nature works, there are deep untapped sensations of transcendent emotion to be found, pondered, and exposed. We, the lucky finders of beauty where it wasn’t meant to be.

7 Replies to “More on How Art and Science Know . . .”

  1. This is a really convincing (and moving) argument for the potentially profound role art might have in the transformation of our culture. I couldn’t agree more about the failure of reason to convince. (One could argue that reason is what got us into this mess in the first place, this mess being our ecological crisis. How, then, can we expect it to get us out?) The real changes happen on the level of the unconscious, which is why I find art such a powerful force. On this issue I’m fond of citing George Lakoff’s claim that 98% of human thought is unconscious. If that’s where we do most of our thinking, any language that can shoot straight there is bound to be the most effective. Perhaps others will chime in on this idea that you’ve elsewhere referred to as a new “secular poetics.” There seems to be so much fertile ground there for an art-science exchange.

  2. This is beautifully stated, and I could not agree more. (See one of my comments to Taney’s “Moderator’s Welcome”).

    Do you have any favorite examples of science being communicated with emotional resonance and integrity?

    1. I agree as well with one exception: Taney, that reason has gotten us in trouble: I dont think so- the politics of self interest and monetary gain have gotten us into trouble.

      1. Well, I’m looking a little further back than the spectacular debacle that is unregulated capitalism. For me, it all started in the Enlightenment, when the dreams of reason promised nothing short of salvation. As laudable as its intentions *may* been, the mechanical worldview ushered in then has had some really pernicious consequences, and it remains, all these years later, thoroughly entrenched.

  3. Werner, a few come immediately to mind. There is the classic moment we all remember in Kubrick’s 2001 in which an early prehistoric Hominid has the epiphany to use a deceased animal’s thigh bone as a tool, throws it into the sky, and as the camera follows the lofting bone the film cuts to a 20th century satellite floating in the darkness of Earth orbit. Stunning, chilling, the thread connecting space exploration to primitive tool-making, anthropology and evolution to the discoveries of orbital physics, all packed into a single film splice.

    Also, in a recent art-science exhibition I included a clip of the first ten minutes of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, in which a somewhat inebriated group of bar patrons act out the physics and poetics of a solar eclipse — poignant, humanizing. .

    Or a different kind of experience, an installation from 1993 that I included in a survey of San Francisco electronic wizard/artist Jim Campbell, his homage to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You enter a room with a spot-lit pedestal topped with a transparent acrylic lid, inside of which there sits a small Buddha statue atop some paper with writing. Entering the room you see it clearly, albeit from a distance that thwarts detail — but as you approach for a better look and the closer you get, the contents progressively disappear into a thick fog and thus prevent the precision associated with detailed inspection. Still it is nonetheless strikingly beautiful, even while not fully understood and disobedient to the expectations of observation. All this realized in an immersive, self-guided experience.

    Or for that matter, how about Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question?”

  4. I get what you mean, but gentrify doesn’t sound quite right to me. I might say poeticize, instead, although it’s maybe just semantics. But I don’t think it’s so much about beautifying science as it is liberating it from those shackles designed to keep science culturally restrained and in its proper place as a merely practical, mechanical world view — a how without any why, facts but no meaning. To find its poetic is to create chaos for the stereotype that science has no soul — and that is tremendously subversive in theocratic countries as well as semi-theocratic cultures such as the U.S. and many others.

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