“TO ANSWER OUR MOST FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS, SCIENCE NEEDS TO FIND A PLACE FOR THE ARTS.”
“In the early 1920s, Niels Bohr was struggling to reimagine the structure of matter. Previous generations of physicists had thought the inner space of an atom looked like a miniature solar system with the atomic nucleus as the sun and the whirring electrons as planets in orbit. This was the classical model.
But Bohr had spent time analyzing the radiation emitted by electrons, and he realized that science needed a new metaphor. The behavior of electrons seemed to defy every conventional explanation. As Bohr said, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Ordinary words couldn’t capture the data.
Bohr had long been fascinated by cubist paintings. As the intellectual historian Arthur Miller notes, he later filled his study with abstract still lifes and enjoyed explaining his interpretation of the art to visitors. For Bohr, the allure of cubism was that it shattered the certainty of the object. The art revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.
Bohr’s discerning conviction was that the invisible world of the electron was essentially a cubist world. By 1923, de Broglie had already determined that electrons could exist as either particles or waves. What Bohr maintained was that the form they took depended on how you looked at them. Their very nature was a consequence of our observation. This meant that electrons weren’t like little planets at all. Instead, they were like one of Picasso’s deconstructed guitars, a blur of brushstrokes that only made sense once you stared at it. The art that looked so strange was actually telling the truth.
It’s hard to believe that a work of abstract art might have actually affected the history of science. Cubism seems to have nothing in common with modern physics. When we think about the scientific process, a specific vocabulary comes to mind: objectivity, experiments, facts. In the passive tense of the scientific paper, we imagine a perfect reflection of the real world. Paintings can be profound, but they are always pretend. ….”
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Black Peacock, 1950
This mobile is a powerful example of how an art form can be tailored to the physiology of a specific area in the brain. Calder’s composition anticipated, artistically, the physiological properties of the cells of an area called V5, which are selectively responsive to motion and its direction. Viewed from a distance, the separate pieces of the mobile appear as static spots of varying sizes. But as the pieces move in different directions, each one stimulates only the category of cell that is selectively responsive to the direction in which the spot is moving. —Semir Zeki, Neuroscientist, University College London © Christie’s Images/Corbis