Science and the Arts

by Anton Skorucak, Editor of PhysLink

'During my high school years, my physics teacher recommended to me a wonderful book by Dr. L.I. Ponomarev: THE QUANTUM DICE. In this book Ponomarev examines some very interesting topics, like: Truth and Completeness of the Scientific Picture of the World, Science and Humanity, Science and Art, etc.. I must say that I was fascinated with what I was reading at that time. There I was, a high school student with dreams of becoming a great physicist, reading about incredible, beautiful and complex relationships between the sciences and arts and humanities.

Today, I have this unexplainable need that comes from inside to study further these complex relationships. I am beginning to notice this interplay of physical reality, life, human thought, artistic expression, etc. I am just at the beginning of this road, and I hope that the writings I will present in this little corner called - Cover Story - will light the way and be my, and your, road signs on this wonderful journey'

'I am pleased to open this feature of PhysLink with the 'Science and the Arts' - by Tim Love. This work is a 'must read', and I will leave you to discover it yourself.'

Tim Love
Born: 1957
Hi is a computer officer at Cambridge University, England.
His poetry and prose have appeared on the WWW and in many UK magazines (Stand, Oxford Poetry, etc.)
You can contact Tim at:
or visit his home page:

Science and the Arts by Tim Love
  • 'The purpose of Art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known' - Shklovsky [30]
  • 'Art works because perception goes beyond the evidence and it ignores much counter-evidence' - Richard Gregory [13]
  • 'Art evokes while science explains' - quoted by Richard Gregory [13]
  • 'Science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification.' - Carnap [5, p.42]
  • 'Science, far from destroying the beauty and romance of the world as seen by artists, musicians and writers, enhances it by revealing the underlying reasons and purposes' - McConnell [21, p.2]
  • 'Science is for those who learn; poetry for those who know' [23]
Newton received a mixed reception from poets. As the scientific revolution that he spurred took hold, the Romantics protested against its mechanistic abstractions. The protest was, in hindsight, valid though it wasn't until the 20th century that mainstream scientists realised the truth of the accusations [9, p.108]. The protest was also ill-informed - the later Tennyson was much better read in the sciences and subsequent generations of poets have always included a few professional scientists. Apart from the debate sparked off by C.P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' [31] and sporadic fascination with polymaths like da Vinci, 20th century pure science and art continue in splendid isolation, though 'the rise of science has had something to do with displacing [poetry] as a publicly important vehicle for those truths that people accept as being centrally important.' [4]. The challenge of Positivism caused the Arts to retreat from making great claims about `truth'. Poetry, for example, was cut down to size by I.A. Richards and isolated/protected from other disciplines by its claim to be a unique mode of discourse. Meanwhile literary theory (as opposed to literary criticism) prides itself on being ever more scientific. Technology, with its invitation to control and change, has entered into all aspects of our everyday lives, making artists more aware of contemporary science than scientists are of modern art. This new openness from artists presents an opportunity to build greater understanding between the `cultures'. Connections and analogies have been advanced. Rather than give a general review of the (rather disappointing and often acrimonious) literature I shall pick out a few of the false resemblances and sweeping generalisations that recur, steering clear of sociological and historical discussion in an attempt to find some common ground.

Science is Materialist

Classical science was materialist - the real world was undeniably out there. Relativity was still a classical theory, though more phenomeno-logically based. With Quantum Mechanics the observer entered into the equations, exciting artists. Notions that the world was 'out there' waiting to be discovered were questioned. Many quantum findings still feel counter-intuitive and their interpretation controversial; it's the area where science and common sense part company for good. Maths might be thought to have a simpler foundation, but in fact it encompasses a range of ontological outlooks similar to those in other science disciplines.
  • 'The platonist metaphor assimilates mathematical enquiry to the investigations of the astronomer: mathematical structures, like galaxies, exist, independently of us, in a realm of reality which we do not inhabit but which those of us who have the skill are capable of observing and reporting on. The constructivist metaphor assimilates mathematical activity to that of the artificer fashioning objects in accordance with the creative power of the imagination.', Dummett, [9, p.225]
  • 'In so far as the statements of geometry speak about reality, they are not certain, and in so far as they are certain, they do not speak about reality', Einstein [11, p.3]
Overall, the metaphysical basis of the sciences is closing in on that of the arts - science becoming more constructivist, art less platonic - confirmed early this century by a shared trend towards phenomenology led by Mach in science, and Pound in poetry. It may well be that, as Jon Corelis in private correspondence has suggested 'science has made it impossible for poets to value their perceptions as having an intrinsic metaphysical validity - a validity which is proven by the desire, reverence, or exaltation they instill in us. Instead, poets like scientists must now use their perceptions as sense-images (analogous to observations) to which they must attempt to give value by poetic imagination (analogous to scientific theory.)'

Science is Reductionist and Closed

Though science doesn't hesitate to break the whole into parts, art does it too. Even in meditation, people sometimes concentrate on parts of the body first. And many 20th century art developments arose from separating form from content and recombining.

Of the sciences, maths is considered the one that's most simplified, derived from axioms, but Gödel showed that there are true statements which can't be proved. This finding has affected the grand designs of mathematicians. No longer do they look for a list of axioms and rules that can be used to generate all the theorems. It's made no difference to their other work because there's no way of knowing beforehand whether a proof that's being sought exists or not. Certainly no other fields of science have been affected.

Science seeks generalisations but ones which don't compromise. It seeks all-encompassing rules rather than rules which, though covering more cases, leave behind a slew of exceptions. 'Reality is complex whereas truth is simple' says John Light [20]. But isn't truth an accurate statement of reality and thus at least as complex as its subject matter? The generalisations of science are simpler only because they're formulae, not lists of particulars.

Science is based on maths, and maths developed on Aristotlean logic where statements are either true or false. This excluded middle needn't permeate up through to science, and besides, new multivalue logics have been developed. Nevertheless it's true that science dislikes ambiguity, (which Empson considered a defining characteristic of poetry). At least when science is reductionist it usually states its assumptions.

The methods of science are popularly thought to be appropriate for only certain kinds of problems - truths of the world, not of people. Though 'the part played by new observation and experiment in the process of discovery in science is usually over-estimated' [26, p.28] and most of the interesting results come from 'reconsideration of known phenomena in a new context' [26, p.28], science depends on repeatable observation and prediction. In the main, science recognises these limits, perhaps anticipating that its time will come when new instruments and disciplines appear that can probe the previously hidden. For instance in the 70's interest grew in the study of chaos and complex systems, bridging, if only slightly, the gap between the domains. The use of neural nets in computing may signal progress towards a more human, pattern-matching type of computer.

Only in Science can works be wrong or outdated.

There's a feeling (expressed by Paul Mills [24], for example) that science has truth values that are denied to works of art, and that science theories have a limited lifespan. However, truth, even in science, is culture and context dependent, controlled by the reigning (Kuhn) paradigms. Both art and science are susceptible to the Zeitgeist (Rom Harré, [27]). Trends like subjectivity, symmetry, interaction and atomicity can come into favour (Philip Gell, [27], Halliwell, [15]), affecting notions of truth and beauty across the board.

Even if a science theory has been shown to present a fundamentally wrong model of reality, it can still be useful. Einstein's view of the universe superceded Newton's, but Newton's laws got us to the moon and back. Einstein's gravitation theory can't cope with quantum effects, but theoreticians still depend on it. Ultimate truth is not the only factor determining a theory's lifetime. The theoretical physicist Dirac said that when he had to choose between beauty and truth, he always chose beauty [8], expecting later experiments to prove him right.

Even in maths there is less certainty than is generally thought. In axiomatic systems (Euclidian Geometry, for example) there are sometimes disputes about which statements to use as axioms. In Number Theory the Axiom of Choice is contentious (thought by some to be not self-evident) but without it many other results couldn't be proved. And perhaps worse still, we know there'll always be true statements which can't be proved.

In science (and especially the arts) not all the past is discarded. 'Both tend to stability by precedents from the past' [13]. An expression like e is an allusion to earlier work, just as much a shorthand as Eliot's burnished throne is.

Art is more natural than science

The methods of science have been compared to those used by children during normal development. Babies learn of the world using observation, experimentation and deduction. Mature science is forging more links with other fields of human involvement; witness Paul Davies' attempts to connect science and religion [7].

Perhaps it's time to look in more depth at those who've excelled in both fields to see if they get similar satisfactions out of their dual endevears. William Empson and Valery were once maths students. Holub, Primo Levi, Goethe, da Vinci, Danny Abse and William Carlos Williams all pursued dual careers. It seems to me that the incidence of scientific and artistic talent in the one person is no more than one would expect were the talents independent. There seems little cross-influence except that poet-scientists use their science experiences as subject matter and some of them (Edward Lowbury, for instance) attribute their dislike of obscurity in art to their scientific upbringing.

Art's a richer language than science

Maths and music make claims to be universal languages of sorts. Science's base metaphors are increasingly mathematical - building conceptual models from billiard balls is a thing of the past. Some theorists (for example Wimsatt) consider metaphor central to poetry. Colin Turbayne [33] thinks that that science is metaphor-laden too, the metaphors dead. Waismann [quoted in 17] argues that scientific concepts are only closed in specific contexts and that they are not different in kind to the metaphors of poetry. Indeed, his 'open texture' concept was developed initially to deal with the language of science.

Natural language has room for various language games. Maths hasn't - games aren't maths any more. Maths is one of the games that can be played in language - and you've got to have a net. Its range of expression is limited and consequently maths requires a longer apprenticeship before creative work can be done. Children can write poems but even undergraduate maths students can't express themselves.

Appreciation of the arts also requires a long apprenticeship. The difference between the cultures is that people looking at a Constable can say 'that's nice' because it's expected of them or because they like the countryside. Science rarely lets people off so lightly - scientists have to learn how appreciate as well as express, they have to learn the language. Poetasters can fake it.

I suspect that people with an impoverished appreciation of the arts (most of us) can only extract from art `truths' that they already know from lived experience. Playing Mozart to bushmen or reading Ashbery to almost anyone won't impress the audience. Art isn't clearly more natural or even richer than science.

Art and science have much in common

Prof Robert May [22] thinks that 'the essential aim of science is to understand how the world works. This is also true of the arts ... the technical trappings of science obscure its underlying kinship with the arts'. This is too low a common denominator to be of much interest even if it were true. I think the differences lie deeper than that, and that the aims of art are less clear. The arts also have their fair share of technical obscurity. Like I. A. Richards I'm unimpressed by such attempts to show that 'the functions of science and poetry are identical' [28, p.62]. However I think practitioners share some heuristics: concepts may be held together in the mind to see if anything develops (for artists the concepts may differ widely); concepts grow by association (artists have more scope, fewer boundaries and can mix layers); experience builds templates so that future similar situations can be more easily dealt with by pattern-matching.

Intuition and imagination are highly valued in the sciences, though one can plod along quite merrily without them (but then, one can be a very technically accomplished and 'successful' concert pianist, I'm told, yet have little feel for music).

I.A. Richards thought that 'the imaginative life is its own justification' [28, p.66]. More recently Holden in [19] says 'Poetry is like Pure Maths, an end in itself' but the Arts can contribute to the Zeitgeist, which in turn affects scientists. On the whole it appears that science has been more useful to the arts than vice versa - it has provided materials (oil paints), artforms (cinema) and subject matter (science fiction). It has changed the world that some think is art's duty to describe.

Attempts have been made to find analogies between arts and sciences. Buchanan thought that 'The symbolic elements of poetry are words, and the corresponding elements of mathematics are ratios' [2, p.18] and goes on to say that 'The mathematician sees and deals with relations, the poet sees and deals with qualities. Functions and adjectives respectively are the symbols through which they see and with which they operate' [2, p.135]. This promising start isn't built on. Elsewhere, the analogies are neither surprising nor interesting:

Methodology - A case has been made (in [21]) that the processes of art and science correspond. I think the likeness rather tenuous. They split the process into 3 contentious stages

  • observation - true, this is done in both fields. Sometimes in the arts the thoroughness might be thought to match that in the sciences (Monet's multiple views of Rouen Cathedral, maybe, or Picasso and Braque's cubist experiments or a writer's research for a novel).
  • generalisation - this is seldom done in the arts. Perhaps an artist might extract the general features of sadness from the hundreds of faces seen, but such a result isn't used like generalisations in science. The aim of artists more to explore differences than find commonality.
  • testing - This stretches the metaphor too far. Comparing how scientific results are judged with the way that works of art are received by the public and critics begs too many questions. Apart from anything else, creators in the scientific world can propose ways that their work might be invalidated. In the arts there's nothing comparable.
The Scientific Method is only science's sense organs, extending mankind's natural ones. It's not the be-all and end-all of science.

Quantum Theory - In Quantum Theory, probabilities can be calculated but only when an observation is made can any certainty be established. Observation is said to 'collapse the probability function.' This has been used for an analogy to the way that a text is interpreted (dis-ambiguated) by the act of reading [24]. But texts can be re-read!

Relativity - Connections are made between Einstein's Special Relativity and analytic cubism. Awareness of the equal importance of world viewpoints, the impossibility of absolute motion and time perhaps permeated via the Zeitgeist to artists; the link came from no deep mutual understanding.

Gödel - Gödel's findings (see above) have helped soften artists' views on science and has removed an aim of classical science. They have only made maths more obviously like the other sciences. The gap between science and the arts hasn't thereby been reduced.

Geometry - Mondrian is heavily geometric and minimalist. This doesn't make him more appealing to mathematicians. Equally, the 4-colour problem in maths isn't appealing to artists.


Bush's and Nicolson's books and the introduction to 'Poems of Science' give useful historical accounts. None of the other references are highly recommended. Green's book is interesting in that he's an arts person who took Snow to heart. Polanyi's book is worth a read too.

1. 'Science and Human Values', J. Bronowski, London, 1961.
2. 'Poetry and Mathematics', Scott Buchanan, Univ Press of Virginia, 1929.
3. 'Science and English Poetry', D. Bush, OUP, 1950.
4. 'Poetry in a Discouraging Time', Christopher Clausen, Georgia Review, Winter 1981.
5. 'The Unity of Science', R. Carnap, London, 1934.
6. 'Nature's Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision', John Cornwell, OUP, 1995.
7. 'The Mind of God', Paul Davies, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
8. Paul Dirac in 'Scientific American', CCVIII, May 1963.
9. 'Truth and Other Enigmas', M. Dummett.
10. 'The Concept of creativity in science and art' edited by Denis Dutton and Michael Krausz, Kluwer Boston, 1981.
11. 'Geometry and Experience', Einstein.
12. 'Art in the science dominated world: science, logic and art' by E.L. Feinberg; translated from the Russian by J.A. Cooper, New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1987.
13. 'Royal Society Conference on The Visual Culture of Art and Science', R Gregory, July 1995.
14. 'Science and the shabby Curate of Poetry', M. Green, Longmans, 1964.
15. 'Archadia, Anarchy and Archetypes', Jonathan Halliwell, New Scientist, 12th Aug 1995.
16. 'Poems of Science', ed J. Heath-Stubbs and P. Salman, Penguin, 1984.
17. 'Metaphor's Way of Knowing', P.L. Hagen, Peter Lang, 1995.
18. 'Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid', D. R. Hofstadter, Penguin, 1980.
19. 'Poetry and Mathematics', in 'Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry', Jonathan Holden, Univ of Missouri Press, 1986.
20. 'Science, Truth and Art', John Light, Poetry Nottingham, V49, No 2, 1995.
21. 'Art, science and human progress: the Richard Bradford Trust, lectures' edited by R.B. McConnell, London: John Murray, 1983.
22. Prof Robert May (Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government), 'Daily Telegraph', Sept 6th, 1995, p.14.
23. 'Meditations of a Parish Priest' Pt i, N. 71.
24. 'The Quantum Uncertainty of the Narrator', Ian Mills, in 'Poetry Review' V85.1, Spring 1995.
25. 'Newton demands the Muse', M.H. Nicolson, Princeton Univ Press, 1946.
26. 'Science, Faith and Society', Polanyi, Univ of Chicago Press, 1964.
27. 'Common denominators in art and science', edited by Martin Pollock with the assistance of Keith Brown, Aubrey Manning and Barrie Wilson, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1983.
28. 'Poetries and Sciences', I.A. Richards, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
29. 'Science and Truth', I.A. Richards, 1929.
30. 'Art as Technique', Shklovsky, 1917.
31. 'The Two Cultures: and a second look', C. P. Snow, Cambridge, 1964.
32. 'Newton's Sleep', Raymond Tallis, P.N. Review, V17, Nos 3-6, 1991.
33. 'The Myth of Metaphor', C. Turbayne, Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Tim Love, September 1995.