Response to 3.4 by Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim / As someone who trained in physics and mathematics and now works as an artist and a science writer I find that there’s a fair bit of confusion in the arts-practice sphere about what scientific research is, which is creating angst around the idea of what “research” might mean for arts practice. Let me begin with an anecdote:

The other day I was speaking with an artist I respect about mathematics and I mentioned that when getting a PhD in math you have to come up with new equations. He was rather surprised and didn’t understand that new equations are the sine qua non of math research. Equally, in theoretical physics you are expected to come up with new equations to get your research published. There isn’t really an equivalent in art practice because the “validity” of equations is judged by pretty narrow parameters.  I want to dispel a myth here: new equations aren’t a rare thing; in the mathematical/physical sciences they are meat and potatoes. It’s like playing chess: a good chess player is expected to find new paths within a set of pre-existing, narrowly defined parameters. The paradoxical art of doing physics and math is coming up with new things while conforming to a huge body of rules. Most artists wouldn’t want to be so constricted, and art would be immensely less rich if we were so constrained.

In science one is mostly making incremental additions to a vast body of existing work to which you add small fragments that are judged in pre-set ways. In the arts, we tend to value new visions and leaps of imagination  – or at least we claim to. Big imaginative leaps are rare in science research, which in recent decades has been wildly romanticized. Einstein is an exception here, which is why he’s been so mythologized, but he’s un-representational of what science mostly is. Occasionally the rules of science are broken or reinterpreted, and new fields come into being. But that’s unusual.  By its nature science is a conservative activity – it has to be to function. 90% of a science education is learning what’s gone before; its rather like an old-fashioned apprenticeship, and in many ways learning to be a physicist or mathematician has more in common with learning to be a carpenter than training to be an artist. In mathematics and physics, you can’t make a contribution until you’ve mastered a vast body of existing knowledge that will have necessitated working through endless problem sets where the major task is to recapitulate what millions of others have done before you.

New knowledge comes into being through many different modalities and science shouldn’t necessarily be our model for new epistemologies. As feminist artists, post-colonial artists, queer artists; as artists who want to challenge received rules and assert new ones, our model often can’t be scientific research. Of course we can find resonances in our practices within sciences – as a feminist I’m interested in the ways that women’s handicraft embodies mathematical relationships and constitutes a genuine form of mathematical cognition.  My practice explores and asserts the value of non-symbolic modes of doing mathematics.

4 Replies to “Response to 3.4 by Margaret Wertheim”

  1. I completely agree, Margaret. Your anecdote shows that if artists and scientists are to truly understand each other, it’s not enough to simply have high-level conversations about what each field is “about”. Artists and scientists need to get down in the weeds together, working shoulder to shoulder. They have to be exposed each other’s minutiae and dirty laundry because these are the telltale signs of a field’s core concerns, not the glorified accounts we make up after the fact.

    Along the lines of your second point about the role of existing knowledge in science, I think reductionism has also been the subject of misunderstandings. (I’ve been intending to write this up as a post.) Scientific reductionism in practice bears no resemblance to the juggernaut that is demonized by postmodernism. Progress is not a one-way street. The answer to a particular why does not always mean drilling down to ever greater levels of detail; sometimes it comes from stepping back to look at phenomena in aggregate (e.g. Ken Wilson and the renormalization group). More importantly, new descriptions of phenomena do not necessarily displace the old — it depends on the scale. An analogy: you don’t have to account for the curvature of the earth when building a house, but you do when launching a satellite. Similarly, we haven’t discarded Newton’s law of gravity now that we have general relativity. Newton’s law remains true and useful in its regime of validity, and general relativity tells us something deep about *why* Newton’s law works. These disparate descriptions of the same phenomenon coexist, and they end up validating each other. Indeed, such unexpected convergences contribute to the multivalent nature of scientific knowledge (which could be a point of contact with art), and they are often cited as one aspect of beauty in science.

  2. “science shouldn’t necessarily be our model for new epistemologies.”
    I presume you mean “epistemes”. But it probably should be. That’s the definition of science – it’s systematic, domain-specific learning. For science not to be a model for epistemic discovery, we’d have to admit to unsystematic models of learning. But that sounds oxymoronic, ’cause if they’re unsystematic then how can they be models?

    1. I think the “our” in Margaret’s sentence there refers to artists, Neil (or possibly to anyone in search of alternative approaches to knowing). Art is notorious for becoming sclerotic when it’s bound by rigid rules and functions best when it’s unsystematic, so I think what’s being suggested here is that we artists look for models other than science for understanding how we conceive artistic “research.”

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