In the late 1880s, when Vincent van Gogh was in the south of France, classical physics was in its prime years, the industrial revolution was in high gear, and heavier-than-air flight was being actively researched. Vincent could have called one of his most famous paintings from that period “Tranquil Landscape” or “Village in the Valley” or “Evening Air.” But no, he called it “The Starry Night.”
In many ways science and art are profoundly similar. The best of each rise up from the depths of human creativity, nurtured by an individual’s commitment and passion to the discipline. In common parlance, we are equally likely to hear (or say ourselves) “She’s got it down to a science” or “He’s raised it to an art.” In other ways, however, science and art are profoundly different. The most important scientific theories of all time, those that came from the minds of undeniably great scientists, would all have been discovered eventually by one or more other scientists. In some cases, important theories or discoveries have been rushed to publication out of fear of being scooped by someone else. In art, however, Leonardo daVinci didn’t have to rush-paint his Mona Lisa out of fear that somebody else was going to create the identical portrait. And if Ludwig van Beethoven had never been born, nothing remotely approximating his famous Ninth Symphony would ever be written by anybody, anywhere, at any time.
If art indeed imitates life, then art is an expression of the beauty, the tragedy, and the complexity of the human condition. Central to imitating the human condition is the need to explore our sense of place and purpose in the world. If the discoveries of science were detached from this calling then one would never expect science to inspire creativity in the artist, or more specifically, one would never expect art to reach for scientific themes.
Other than the occasional portrayal of a comet or an evening moon, art before the industrial revolution rarely tapped science for its themes. Upon the arrival of that seminal period of civilization, science begin to touch people’s daily lives. Today, we fully expect to be living differently (longer, better, healthier, stronger) next year than this one, simply due to the advancing frontier of science.
For most of the twentieth century the image of scientists held by the public was the wild-haired, lab coat-wearing, test-tube holding, unkempt looking, antisocial variety. But what mattered more than these stereotypes was that scientists typically conducted their work in the confines of laboratories and rarely communicated their work to the public, unless the results had direct implications for national health or defense. And, even then, the results were only occasionally communicated by the scientists themselves.
True, the great physicists Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Faraday, Eddington, Jeans, and Einstein all wrote popular accounts of their works. But they were exceptions. In modern times, along with traditional science writers, it’s expected (and even common) for scientists to communicate discoveries to the public through magazines, books, television, and public talks. During any week of your choosing, dozens of science programs appear on PBS and on cable TV channels, while multiple science news stories make headlines in the daily newspapers. The internet further brims with endless science content, if you know where to find it.
And over the past two decades, I saw the Tony-award-winning play Copenhagen on Broadway, where the audience was transfixed to a re-telling of important episodes in the history of particle physics and quantum mechanics as they related to the making of the first atomic bomb. At the same time, I noted that The Elegant Universe, a book on the search for a theory of everything, was still high on the bestseller list. And lately, there’s been a science book on the list at least once a month. And science-inspired plays keep surfacing. One titled Proof, which explores the relationship between mind and mathematical genius, and another exploring the life of the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman titled QED. Meanwhile, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funds a grant-stream that specifically targets playwrights who are inspired to tell the stories of untold episodes in the history of science.
We’ve also seen an unprecedented parade of first-run bio-pics that portray scientists—some known, some obscure. A Beautiful Mind (John Nash), Agora (Hypatia), The Imitation Game (Alan Turing), and The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking), each attracting marquee actors and directors. On the fiction side, we have the two high-budget films Interstellar and The Martian, each chock full of accurate science, fully integrated with the art of story-telling.
We have evolved from a culture were science touched no one, to where science touches everyone. Caught in the transition were those pioneering artists who, one or two hundred years ago, sought cosmic themes at a time when the science was there, but accessible expositions of its discoveries were not. Today, if the artist’s ways are any indication, the public has embraced science as never before—not as something cold and distant, but as something warm and nearby. From the mysteries of the big bang to the mapping of the human genome, to the stellar origin of the chemical elements to the search for life in the universe, people are beginning to feel that cosmic discoveries, made by members of our own species, belong to us all. People see, perhaps for the first time, that they are no longer bystanders in the scientific enterprise but vicarious participants.
In Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual, Lynn Gamwell traces and documents the resonant evolution of art and science through the centuries in as thorough an exposition as I have ever seen. We are entering an era of artistic inspiration derived from (and occasionally enabled by) the discoveries of modern science. Like the religious and mythological sources that so influenced art before and during the Renaissance, many artists are now moved by the need to capture the physical universe. The theories and discoveries of modern science may have limitless capacity to harness human emotion and unbridled wonder. If so, then artists can count among their many muses the cosmos itself.