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What Science Can Learn from the Arts: Data, Visualization, Design

Question: What can science learn from the arts? 

Adam Bly: So in two ways I think science can learn from the arts – at least two ways. One very concretely in terms of ideas, and the other in terms of communication. The idea is being . . . let’s say a little bit more important. I think we’ve reached a point in science right now at the vanguard of science which I would consider to be theoretical physics and neuroscience; where the ideas and the questions that we’re asking have become such that the tools at our disposal in sort of traditionally scientific ways may be inadequate to achieve the kind of ideas and truths that we seek. It takes $8 billion dollar Super Colliders to move theoretical physics forward now, and that may or may not yield satiating results. We’ll find out next year. Neuroscience has been built over the last little while from the bottom up. It’s a field that is dominated by bits of research, and bits of understanding, and is deficient right now; is lacking for top down kind of masterful theories . . . big theories which certainly physics has. In both cases the study of consciousness requires that we certainly recognize that we ourselves are in the equation as we’re studying consciousness, which necessarily effects the equation. And in theoretical physics, if you believe string theory to be true – or if at least you assume . . . hypothesize and you . . . you use string theory as your dominant theory right now, you need an 11 dimensional universe. And so devising the experimental conditions, and more importantly being able to even intellectually grasp that kind of an idea which our brains as we know them and as we currently use them are incapable of fathoming. An 11 dimensional universe is simply something that we don’t know how to think about, we also don’t know how to talk about, we don’t know how to draw. So we become bounded, limited by our own inadequacies in trying to understand a universe that didn’t build itself for us. And similarly trying to understand the mind, thinking about thinking is no simple task. And so there’s an important marriage, I think, in trying to achieve real understanding of these areas of the natural world in marrying both experiments and experience. There’s a wonderful book going to be coming out this fall called “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” by a writer at Seed named Jonah Lehrer based on a work that he published in a magazine which basically looks at some major thinkers in the 20th century – from Proust, to Cezanne, to Stravinsky, to __________, to others, and looks at how they very much in their expressions of experience, in their writings, in their music, in their paintings, anticipated some of the discoveries in modern neuroscience. I think that when you look at multiple dimensional universes today, many physicists will site a 19th century book by Edwin Abbott called “Flatland” which sort of very beautifully articulated a world of two dimensions where everything . . . one big sheet of paper and all of us were just sort of sheets of paper on another sheet of paper. And based on the size of the sheets of paper and how they interacted, that would determine the hierarchies in society and how we communicated. And then at some point this two dimensional world hears about . . . talks about a third three dimensional world, and they can’t even begin to fathom what a three dimensional world would be like in some distant space land somewhere. And that kind of interplay of not being able to even grasp the idea of a three dimensional universe is quite relevant to theoretical physics and many theoretical physicists today are citing Edwin Abbott’s work in the 19th century. I think metaphor and language is critical not only to communicating – so this maybe bridges both the idea and the communication . . . It is not only critical to communicating scientific ideas outside of science to the people who fund it . . . and so there’s very, you know, practical reasons why science needs new languages, new tools, new visualizations; but also within science. Just to be able to navigate these very complex ideas, metaphor is incredibly valuable. Metaphor is sort of one of the pillars of . . . Being able to understand science is to create metaphors. Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating. We’re also, as a result of the rise in super computing and the incredible powers that technology is contributing to science, being overwhelmed with data. If you think about the sheer size, the magnitude of the human genome project; or of efforts now to map the brain; or of missions in deep space, and of satellite data that’s coming back; and so on and so forth – great simulations that are being . . . They’re able to happen right now as a result of super computing, we’re able to do a lot more and get a lot more back. But we are still limited by this 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, or by this 15 inch monitor that we have at our disposal. And so somehow expressing data – communicating, visualizing, synthesizing data in ways that is functional and has real value is no simple task. And this is a world that design has a much greater aptitude with than science. And so there’s great potential for designers to greatly benefit scientists in that regard. I think also the arts has a completeness to it in the way that people perceive its relationship with truth. People see art as something, because of its subjectivity; because of its incompleteness in some respects; or fuzzier kind of qualities; because of the way it looks, because of course the aesthetics; and for other factors, we see the arts . . . some of us see the arts as a more full way of understanding love, or peace, or war – sort of very big ideas. And science is, in many respects, lacking for that kind of quality in the way it’s perceived by the general public. And so finding the ways to imbue science and not just make it pretty . . . You know it’s really not about making it prettier before it goes out, you know, to the papers and the press release; but really finding ways to express scientific ideas in more satisfying ways to our . . . to sort of satiate our needs for this romantic kind of quality that we associate with truth I think is really important. And I think that’s something that the arts is . . . are very contributing to the sciences today. I think that the only way that we really do achieve the kinds of understanding that we seek about the questions that are in front of us about the natural world today will come from the consilience of the sciences and the arts. This is something that’s been talked about for quite some time, and of course historically has been one of the great sources of innovation and prosperity in the world. And when you look at the Renaissance and you see what the sort of forces were at play influencing the Renaissance centuries ago, we find ourselves in a sort of similarly interesting . . . and suitable conditions right now, both in terms of the kinds of questions that are in front of us; in terms of we’re starting to see new things about the world because of globalization; because of our abilities to interact on the Web with more people, see more things, experience new things. There are so many different forces acting on the world right now that should be useful in spurring that kind of renaissance. And I think there’s a great desire on the part of many scientists and the part of many artists, and we feel it. I mean this is a world that we live in. This is a world that we’re certainly helping to spur. We feel an energy in the coming together of the arts and the scientists which is fresh and both practical and philosophically satisfying.


Recorded on: 10/17/07

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"Being able to understand science is to create metaphors," says Bly, founder of SEED magazine. "Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating."

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