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Mar
3rd
Sat
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Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Art and Science as Metaphor

      

Science and art are different ways of looking at the same thing, namely, the world. (…)

The fact is, science is not making this new landscape, but discovering it. Einstein remarked more than once how strange it is that reality, as we know it, keeps proving itself amenable to the rules of man-made science. It certainly is strange; indeed, so strange, that perhaps it should make us a little suspicious. More than one philosopher has conjectured that our thought extends only as far as our capacity to express it. So too it is possible that what we consider reality is only that stratum of the world that we have the faculties to comprehend. For instance, I am convinced that quantum theory flouts commonsense logic only because commonsense logic has not yet been sufficiently expanded. (…)

I am not arguing that art is greater than science, more universal in its concerns, and wiser in its sad recognition of the limits of human knowledge. What I am proposing is that despite the profound differences between them, at an essential level art and science are so nearly alike as to be indistinguishable. (…)

The critic Frank Kermode has argued, persuasively, I believe, that one of art’s greatest attractions is that it offers “the sense of an ending.” The sense of completeness that is projected by the work of art is to be found nowhere else in our lives. We cannot remember our birth, and we shall not know our death; in between is the ramshackle circus of our days and doings. But in a poem, a picture, or a sonata, the curve is completed. This is the triumph of form. It is a deception, but one that we desire, and require.

The trick that art performs is to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and back again in the twinkling of a metaphor. Here is [the poet] Wallace Stevens, in lines from his poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942):

"You must become an ignorant man again

And see the sun again with an ignorant eye

And see it clearly in the idea of it.”

— Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America, 1997), p329. (…)

This is the project that all artists are embarked upon: to subject mundane reality to such intense, passionate, and unblinking scrutiny that it becomes transformed into something rich and strange while yet remaining solidly, stolidly, itself. Is the project of pure science any different?

When Johannes Kepler recognized that the planets move in elliptical orbits and not in perfect circles, as received wisdom had for millennia held they must do, he added infinitely to the richness of man’s life and thought. When Copernicus posited the horrifying notion that not the Earth but the sun is the center of our world, he literally put man in his place, and he did it for the sake of neither good nor ill, but for the sake of demonstrating how things are. (…)

In the 1970s, when quantum theory began employing such terms as “beauty,” “charm,” and “strangeness” to signify the various properties of quarks, a friend turned to me and said: “You know, they’re waiting for you to give them the words.” I saw what he meant, but he was not quite right: Science does not need art to supply its metaphors. Art and science are alike in their quest to reveal the world. Rainer Maria Rilke spoke for both the artist and the scientist when he said:

"Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window,—possibly: Pillar, Tower?…but for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be."

Rilke Poems (Knopf, 1996), p. 201 (stanza 2, lines 15 to 19).

John Banville, Irish novelist, adapter of dramas, and screenwriter, Beauty, Charm, and Strangeness: Science as Metaphor, Science, 3 July 1998. (Illustration: Greg Mort, Stewardship III, (2004)

See also:

Art and Science tag on Lapidarium
Art and Science tag on Lapidarium notes

Nov
9th
Wed
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Galileo and the relationship between the humanities and the sciences


Ever since Galileo, science has been strongly committed to the unification of theories from different disciplines. It cannot accept that the right explanations of human activities must be logically incompatible with the rest of science, or even just independent of it. If science were prepared to settle for less than unification, the difficulty of reconciling quantum mechanics and general relativity wouldn’t be the biggest problem in physics. Biology would not accept the gene as real until it was shown to have a physical structure — DNA — that could do the work geneticists assigned to the gene. For exactly the same reason science can’t accept interpretation as providing knowledge of human affairs if it can’t at least in principle be absorbed into, perhaps even reduced to, neuroscience.

That’s the job of neurophilosophy.

This problem, that thoughts about ourselves or anything else for that matters couldn’t be physical, was for a long time purely academic. Scientists had enough on their plates for 400 years just showing how physical processes bring about chemical processes, and through them biological ones. But now neuroscientists are learning how chemical and biological events bring about the brain processes that actually produce everything the body does, including speech and all other actions.

Research — including Nobel-prize winning neurogenomics and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) — has revealed how bad interpretation’s explanations of our actions are. And there are clever psychophysical experiences that show us that introspection’s insistence that interpretation really does explain our actions is not to be trusted.

These findings cannot be reconciled with explanation by interpretation. The problem they raise for the humanities can no longer be postponed. Must science write off interpretation the way it wrote off phlogiston theory — a nice try but wrong? Increasingly, the answer that neuroscience gives to this question is “afraid so.”

Few people are prepared to treat history, (auto-) biography and the human sciences like folklore. The reason is obvious. The narratives of history, the humanities and literature provide us with the feeling that we understand what they seek to explain. At their best they also trigger emotions we prize as marks of great art.

But that feeling of understanding, that psychological relief from the itch of curiosity, is not the same thing as knowledge. It is not even a mark of it, as children’s bedtime stories reveal. If the humanities and history provide only feeling (ones explained by neuroscience), that will not be enough to defend their claims to knowledge.

The only solution to the problem faced by the humanities, history and (auto) biography, is to show that interpretation can somehow be grounded in neuroscience. That is job No. 1 for neurophilosophy. And the odds are against it. If this project doesn’t work out, science will have to face plan B: treating the humanities the way we treat the arts, indispensable parts of human experience but not to be mistaken for contributions to knowledge.”

Alex Rosenberg, American philosopher, and the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, Bodies in Motion: An Exchange, NYT, Nov 6, 2011.

Do the humanities need to be defended from hard science?


"As the mathematician and physicist Mark A. Peterson has shown in his new book, “Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Arts and Mathematics,” Galileo’s love for the arts profoundly shaped his thinking, and in many ways helped paved the way for his scientific discoveries. An early biography of Galileo by his contemporary Niccolò Gherardini points out that, “He was most expert in all the sciences and arts, as if he were professor of them. He took extraordinary delights in music, painting, and poetry.” For its part, Peterson takes great delight in demonstrating how his immersion in these arts informed his scientific discoveries, and how art and literature prior to Galileo often planted the seeds of scientific progress to come. (…)

Clearly Galileo was an extraordinary man, and a crucial aspect of what made him that man was the intellectual world he was immersed in. This world included mathematics, of course, but it was also full of arts and literature, of philosophy and theology. Peterson argues forcefully, for instance, that Galileo’s mastery of the techniques involved in creating and thinking about perspective in painting could well have influenced his thinking about the relativity of motion, since both require comprehending the importance of multiple points of view. (…)

The idea that the perception of movement depends on one’s point of view also has forebears in proto-scientific thinkers who are far less suitable candidates for the appealing story of how common sense suddenly toppled a 2000-year old tradition to usher modern science into the world. Take the poet, philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno, who seldom engaged in experimentation and who, 30 years before Galileo’s own trial, refused to recant the beliefs that led him to be burned at the stake, beliefs that included the infinity of the universe and the multiplicity of worlds. (…)

Galileo’s insight into the nature of motion was not merely the epiphany of everyday experience that brushed away the fog of scholastic dogma; it was a logical consequence of a long history of engagements with an intellectual tradition that encompassed a multitude of forms of knowledge. That force is not required for an object to stay in motion goes hand in hand with the realization that motion and rest are not absolute terms, but can only be defined relative to what would later be called inertial frames. And this realization owes as much to a literary, philosophical and theological inquiry as it does to pure observation.

Professor Rosenberg uses his brief history of science to ground the argument that neuroscience threatens the humanities, and the only thing that can save them is a neurophilosophy that reconciles brain processes and interpretation. “If this project doesn’t work out,” he writes, “science and the humanities will have to face plan B: treating the humanities the way we treat the arts, indispensable parts of human experience but not to be mistaken for contributions to knowledge.”

But if this is true, should we not then ask what neuroscience could possible contribute to the very debate we are engaged in at this moment? What would we learn about the truth-value of Professor Rosenberg’s claims or mine if we had even the very best neurological data at our disposal? That our respective pleasure centers light up as we each strike blows for our preferred position? That might well be of interest, but it hardly bears on the issue at hand, namely, the evaluation of evidence — historical or experimental — underlying a claim about knowledge. That evaluation must be interpretative. The only way to dispense with interpretation is to dispense with evidence, and with it knowledge altogether.”

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Chair of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the John Hopkins University, Bodies in Motion: An Exchange, NYT, Nov 6, 2011.

See also:

Science Is Not About Certainty. Science is about overcoming our own ideas and a continuous challenge of common sense

Nov
7th
Mon
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How Epicurus’ ideas survived through Lucretius’ poetry, and led to toleration

       image
                                    Illustration:  Oxford: Anthony Stephens, 1683

Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necessest
non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

"Therefore it is necessary that neither the rays of the sun nor the shining spears of Day should shatter this terror and darkness of the mind, but the aspect and reason of nature."

— Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Book I, line 90-93.

As Greenblatt describes it, Lucretius (borrowing from Democritus and others), says [more than 2,000 years ago] the universe is made of an infinite number of atoms:

"Moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. (…) There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms, it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully, endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited, die off quickly. But nothing — from our own species, to the planet on which we live, to the sun that lights our day — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.”

— cited in Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery, NPR, Sep 19, 2011

””On the Nature of Things,” a poem written 2,000 years ago that flouted many mainstream concepts, helped the Western world to ease into modernity. (…)

Harvard literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt has proposed a sort of metaphor for how the world became modern. An ancient Roman poem, lost for 1,000 years, was recovered in 1417. Its presciently modern ideas — that the world is made of atoms, that there is no life after death, and that there is no purpose to creation beyond pleasure — dropped like an atomic bomb on the fixedly Christian culture of Western Europe.

But this poem’s radical and transformative ideas survived what could have been a full-blown campaign against it, said Greenblatt. (…) One reason is that it was art. A tract would have drawn the critical attention of the authorities, who during the Renaissance still hewed to Augustine’s notion that Christian beliefs were “unshakeable, unchangeable, coherent.”

The ancient poem that contained such explosive ideas, and that packaged them so pleasingly, was “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”) by Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, who died five decades before the start of the Christian era. Its intent was to counter the fear of death and the fear of the supernatural. Lucretius rendered into poetry the ideas of Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who had died some 200 years earlier. Both men embraced a core idea: that life was about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. (…)

Among the most stunning ideas Lucretius promoted in his poem was that the world is made of atoms, imperishable bits of matter he called “seeds.” All the rest was void — nothingness. Atoms never disappeared, but were material grist for the world’s ceaseless change, without any creator or design or afterlife.

These ideas, “drawn from a defunct pagan past,” were intolerable in 15th-century Europe, said Greenblatt, so much so that for the next 200 years they had to survive every “formal and informal mechanism of aversion and repression” of the age.

“A few wild exceptions” embraced this pagan past explicitly, said Greenblatt, including Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, whose “fatal public advocacy” of Lucretius came to an end in 1600. Branded a pantheist, he was imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake.

But the poem itself, a repository of intolerable ideas, was allowed to circulate. How was this so?

Greenblatt offered three explicit reasons:

Reading strategies. In the spirit of commonplace books, readers of that era focused on individual passages rather than larger (and disturbing) meanings. Readers preferred to see the poem as a primer on Latin and Greek grammar, philology, natural history, and Roman culture.

— Scholarship. Official commentaries on the text were not intended to revive the radical ideas of Lucretius, but to put the language and imagery of a “dead work” in context, “a homeostatic survival,” said Greenblatt, “to make the corpse accessible.” He showed an image from a 1511 scholarly edition of the poem, in which single lines on each page lay “like a cadaver on a table,” surrounded by elaborate scholarly text. But the result was still preservation. “Scholarship,” he said, “is rarely credited properly in the history of toleration.”

— Aesthetics. A 1563 annotated edition of the poem acknowledged that its precepts were alien to Christian belief, but “it is no less a poem.”

“Certainly almost every one of the key principles was an offense to right-thinking Christians,” said Greenblatt. “But the poetry was compellingly, stunningly beautiful.”

Its “immensely seductive form,” he said — the soul of tolerance — helped to make aesthetics the concept that bridged the gap between the Renaissance and the early modern age.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French nobleman who invented the art of the essay, helped to maintain that aesthetic thread. His work includes almost 100 quotations from Lucretius. It was explicitly aesthetic appreciation of the old Roman, said Greenblatt, despite Montaigne’s own “genial willingness to submit to Christian orthodoxy.”

In the end, Lucretius and the ideas he borrowed from Epicurus survived because of art. “That aesthetic dimension of the ancient work (…) was the key element in the survival and transmission of what was perceived (…) by virtually everyone in the world to be intolerable,” said Greenblatt. “The thought police were only rarely called in to investigate works of art.”

One irony abides. Epicurus himself was known to say, “I spit on poetry,” yet his ideas only survive because of it. Lucretius saw his art as “honey smeared around the lip of a cup,” said Greenblatt, “that would enable readers to drink it down.”

The Roman poet thought there was no creator or afterlife, but that “should not bring with it a cold emptiness,” said Greenblatt. “It shouldn’t be only the priests of the world, with their delusions, who could convey to you that feeling of the deepest wonder.””

— Corydon Ireland, Through artistry, toleration, Harvard Gazette, Oct 31, 2011

See also:

☞ Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (1st century B.C.), History of Science Online

"In De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), the poet Lucretius (ca. 50 BC) fused the atomic theory of Democritus and Leucippus with the philosophy of Epicurus in order to argue against the existence of the gods. While ordinary humans might fear the thunderbolts of Jove or torments in the underworld after death, Lucretius advised his readers to take courage in the knowledge that death is merely a dissolution of the body, as atoms combine and reassemble according to chance as they move through the void. Against the Stoics, Aristotelians, and Neoplatonists, Lucretius argued for a mechanistic universe governed by chance. He also argued for a plurality of worlds (and these planets, like the Earth, need not be spherical) and a non-hierarchical universe. Despite the paucity of ancient readers persuaded by Lucretius’ arguments, his work was almost universally admired as a masterful example of Latin style.”

Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BCE – ca. 55 BCE) was a Roman poet and philosopher.

See also:

Stephen Greenblatt, The Answer Man, The New Yorker, Aug 8, 2011
Lucretius, Man Of Modern Mystery, NPR, Sep 19, 2011
☞ Christian Flow, Swerves, Harvard Magazine Jul-Aug 2011
Lucretius on the infinite universe, the beginning of things and the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, Lapidarium
Lucretius: ‘O unhappy race of men, when they ascribed actions to the gods’, Lapidarium

Jun
16th
Thu
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The Future of Science…Is Art?

                              
   Leonardo Da Vinci, Study for an angel’s face from The Virgin of the Rocks, ca. 1483

"This pencil study stunningly illustrates for me a key parallel between science and the arts: They strive for representation and expression, to capture some essential truth about a chosen subject with simplicity and economy. My equations and diagrams are no more the world I’m trying to describe than the artist’s pencil strokes are the woman he drew. However, it shows what’s possible, despite that limitation. The woman that emerges from the simple pencil strokes is so alive that she stares into your soul. In attempting to capture the universe, I mustn’t confuse my equations with the real thing, but from them some essential truths about nature will spring forth, transcending the mathematics and coming to life."

— Clifford Johnson, Physicist, University of Southern California © Alinari Archives/Corbis

"Physics is a form of insight, and as such, it’s a form of art."

David Bohm, American-born British quantum physicist who made contributions in the fields of theoretical physics, philosophy and neuropsychology, and to the Manhattan Project (1917-1992)

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. (…)

Since its inception in the early 20th century, neuroscience has succeeded in becoming intimate with the brain. Scientists have reduced our sensations to a set of discrete circuits. They have imaged our cortex as it thinks about itself, and calculated the shape of ion channels, which are machined to subatomic specifications.

And yet, despite this vast material knowledge, we remain strangely ignorant of what our matter creates. We know the synapse, but don’t know ourselves. In fact, the logic of reductionism implies that our self-consciousness is really an elaborate illusion, an epiphenomenon generated by some electrical shudder in the frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine; there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics. (…)

Neuroscience excels at unraveling the mind from the bottom up. But our self-consciousness seems to require a top-down approach. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote, “If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?” The paradox of neuroscience is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm, as reductionism has failed to solve our emergent mind. Much of our experiences remain outside its range.

This world of human experience is the world of the arts. The novelist and the painter and the poet embrace those ephemeral aspects of the mind that cannot be reduced, or dissected, or translated into the activity of an acronym. They strive to capture life as it’s lived. As Virginia Woolf put it, the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day…[tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” She tried to describe the mind from the inside.

Neuroscience has yet to capture this first-person perspective. Its reductionist approach has no place for the “I” at the center of everything. It struggles with the question of qualia. Artists like Woolf, however, have been studying such emergent phenomena for centuries, and have amassed a large body of knowledge about such mysterious aspects of the mind. They have constructed elegant models of human consciousness that manage to express the texture of our experience, distilling the details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why their novels have endured: because they feel true. And they feel true because they capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot.”

Jonah Lehrer, American science journalist, The Future of Science…Is Art?, SEED, Jan 16, 2008

See also:

Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss on Connecting Science and Art
Richard Feynman and Jirayr Zorthian on science, art and beauty
Piet Hein on Art and Science
Art and Science tag on Lapidarium

Apr
28th
Thu
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Science and art come together in the Undivided Mind | Imaginary Foundation


                                                      (Click image to see 3D visualization)

The Undivided Mind installation is a project of The Imaginary Foundation.

"This installation endeavors to fuse the aesthetic beauty of art and science in order to create a synthesis of mind, one which is as much rational as it is fantastic. Think of this undivided mind as a prototype of human possibility-an evolutionary signal of convergence, harmony, and accelerated progress. The rest is up to us."

This is a virtual simulacrum of the installation that materialized in San Francisco in November of 2010.

The Imaginary Foundation is a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. Avoiding direct publicity, the team has sought clothing as an unlikely vehicle for bringing their ideas beyond the academic realm and into popular culture.

A philosophy of research began to form: imagination as fundamental to all learning; artistic making as a model of integrating vision, materials, structure, and imagery.

The Undivided Mind

The Pattern That Connects


                                                         (Click image to enlarge)

(tnx Jason Silva)

Man creates reality


                                                         (Click image to enlarge)

The Imaginary Foundation