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Science and Art

by Leonid I. Ponomarev

The limitations of science are the most evident in attempts to use scientific methods to unveil the secrets of art. Science 'knows everything' about the grand piano: the number, quality and length of its strings; the species of wood used; the composition of the glue, and the finest details of its design. Nevertheless, it is unable to explain what happens to this polished box when a virtuoso sits down to play. Perhaps this is even unnecessary. A person crying over a book does not usually concern himself with the means the author used to achieve this effect. He can, of course, at a later date read a critical work, twice as thick, on the book that has impressed him so. This all, however, will resemble an autopsy, a thing necessary for specialists but extremely unpleasant for most people. Marcus Aurelius wrote that 'to despise songs and dances, it is sufficient to decompose them into their component elements'. But Art is wise - through all the ages it has guarded the intangible truth of sensual perceptions from the persistent intrusions of probing science. Art has always been valued precisely for its capacity to 'remind us of harmonies inaccessible to systematic analysis'. Anyone can understand the construction of a nuclear reactor even if he has never seen one. But it is absolutely impossible to explain to a person what charm is if he has never been enchanted.

'The might of science lies in its universality. Its laws are free of the arbitrariness of people, it only represents their collective experience, independent of age, nationality, or frame of mind.'


The secret of art is its inimitability. The power of its influence depends on the whole body of the previous experience of a person, on the wealth of his associations, on elusive changes in his mood, on a chance glance, word, or touch - on all that constitutes the individuality, the beauty of the transient and the power of the inimitable.

The highest achievement for a scientists is to have his findings confirmed, i.e. repeated by another scientist. On the other hand, sameness kills art, and so a great tragic actor 'dies' on the stage in a new way each night.

Cases are known of symphonies composed by persons without even the rudiments of a formal musical education. These works may have been unusual but were eligible as such if at leas a small section of the public liked them. In science such a situation is inconceivable. It has a criterion of truth and its language does not contain the words 'like' and 'dislike'.

In Science truths are proved and phenomena are explained. In art they are interpreted. Logical reasoning is alien to art which substitutes the spontaneous cogency of images for rigorous proofs.

As a rule, science can explain why this formula is good and why that theory is bad. Art can only show the fascination of music and the brilliance of a sonnet, never explaining anything completely.

Science is thorough and unhurried; it keeps on solving its problems for years on end, and many of them are often passed over from generation to generation. It can afford this luxury because of an unambiguous method that has been devised for recording and storing the facts established by science. In art the intuitively precise world of images is fluid. (Great actors are sometimes called 'heroes of the fleeting moment'.) One keen but split-second perception, however, may awake in the heart of a person a response that will stay with him for years and that may even alter the whole course of his life.

Then would I hail the fleeting moment
O stay - you are so fair!


was Faust's passionate longing that could only be fulfilled by the magic of art. It is this magic that after a lapse of many years can bring back with a frightening clarity the nuances of remote thoughts and moods that defy any words.

'Notwithstanding the seeming fragility of ambiguity of artistic images, art is more durable and ancient than science. The Gilgamesh Epic and Homer's poems do stir us even now because they tell us something that is vital in man and that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. As for science, it has hardly had time to consolidate the new possibilities of research.'


It is almost impossible today to read books on physics written in the last century, so obsolete they have become and so much has the whole style of scientific thought changed since then. The importance of scientific works is, therefore, determined by their productivity, not their longevity. They have already done their bit, if they helped to promote science in their time.

We could go on searching for and finding endless shades of distinction between art and science. The benefit of such an exercise is doubtful, for the two human endeavours only differ in their ways of gaining knowledge of the surrounding world and human nature. Ancient Greeks did not distinguish between the two notions and called them by a single word Greek(techne), meaning 'skill', 'art', 'craft', and 'refinement' (hence 'technology'). And the first laws of physics established by Pythagoras were laws of harmony.

Poets have long been searching for a 'poesy of thought' and not simply poetry. Scientists, on their part, speak about 'poetry in science'. Both clans, it seems, are now eager to break down the age-old barriers between them and to forget their ancient feuds. There is no sense in arguing about which hand, right or left, is the more important, even thought they develop and function differently.

Any actor understands that he cannot reach the acme of his art without first mastering the sciences of diction, mimicry, and gesture. And only then (provided he is talented, of course!) can he create something unique and wondrous quite unconsciously.

'In exactly the same manner, a scientist, even thought he has mastered the trade of a physicist, will make no real physicist if he only trusts to formulas and logic. All profound truths of science are paradoxes at birth and cannot be attained by only leaning on logic and experiment.'


To cut the long story short, real art is impossible without the most rigorous science. Likewise, deep scientific revelations only in part belong to science, the other part lying in the domain of art. But there are always boundaries to the scientific analysis of art, and there is always a limit to grasping science by an impulse of inspiration.

There is an apparent complementarity in the methods utilized by art and science to know the world. Science relies routinely on the analysis of facts and search for cause-effect relations; it strives to ' ... find an eternal law in the marvelous transmutations of chance', endeavours to ' ...find a fixed pole in the endless train of phenomena'. Art, on the other hand, is largely unconscious synthesis, which finds among the same 'transmutations of chance' the only and the inimitable ones and among the same 'endless train of phenomena' infallibly selects only those that enable one to sense the harmony of the whole.

The world of human perceptions is infinitely diverse, although chaotic and coloured with personal emotions. Man has a way of putting his impressions in order and comparing them with those of others. To this end, he has invented science and created arts. Art and science have thus had common beginnings. They are united by the feeling of wonder they evoke - how did this formula, this poem, this theory or this music came into existence? ( The ancients said, 'The beginning of knowledge is wonder.' )

'The creative aspect of all arts and sciences is the same. It is determined by one's intuitive capacity to group facts and impressions of the surrounding world so as to satisfy our emotional need for harmony, a feeling one experiences when out of chaos of external impressions one has worked up something simple and consummate, e.g., a statue out of a block of marble, a poem out of a collection of words, or a formula out of numbers. This emotional satisfaction is also the first criterion of the truth of the product, which of course is to be tested later on - by experiments in science and by time in art.'


'Scientist studies nature not because it is useful; rather he studies it because it is a source of pleasure for him, because nature is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worthy of the effort that goes into knowing it, and life would be not worthy of the effort it takes to live it.'

These words belong to Henri Poincare. Aesthetic perception of the logical beauty of science is inherent in some form or other in each true scientist. But perhaps nobody said about this better than Poincare. 'He loved science not only for the sake of science. For him it was a source of spiritual joys and aesthetical delights of an artist who has mastered the art of couching beauty in real forms, ' commented the Russian translator of his famous books Science and Method, Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Mathematics and Science: Last Essays, which were instrumental in deciding the scientific careers of Louis de Broglie, Frederic Joliot-Curie and many, many others.

- Leonid I. Ponomarev,
taken from his book: 'The Quantum Dice' with his permission.



Prof. Leonid I. Ponomarev was born in 1937 in Donbass in the south of Russia. In 1963 he graduated from Moscow University and for 20 years worked at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna. At present he is with I.V. Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, where he is the head of one of the Theoretical Departments. His scientific interests are centred around quantum physics, specifically muon catalyzed fusion. Other interests of Prof. Ponomarev include the history of science.


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