Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Thanks to Brenda for pointing out this wonderful article on science's need for the arts. Seeing the two endeavours as non-overlapping fields is simply wrongheaded. So much of the reading I do these days is popular science, including many of the folks Lehrer names (Pinker, Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, etc.). I read these books because, as much as any novelist or poet, these scientists help me to understand what and where I am and they do it with style. It's no coincidence, I think, that such fine writers are also leaders in their fields; it takes imagination and inspiration, not just observation and data-processing, to do great innovative science. As Brian Greene says:

Broad knowledge, technical facility, flexibility of thought, openness to unanticipated connections, immersion in the free flow of ideas world-wide, hard work, and significant luck are all critical parts of scientific discovery.

You could replace those last two words with "artistic excellence" and the statement would be just as true. And for poets and other artists, major currents in the "free flow of ideas" are scientific.

In his new collection of essays, Robert Bringhurst makes the sharp observation that physics has its own myths. Indeed, it has its own saints and superheroes, not to mention martyrs. The dichotomies of myth and truth, science and fiction, are, like most dichotomies, false ones. Pace Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion are not "non-overlapping magisteria"; as Daniel Dennett has pointed out, if they are non-overlapping, then not a whole helluva lot is left in religion's purview. Is there a more fascinating conflict these days than the titanomachia between organized religion (a faded purveyor of calcified myths) and science (a formidably strong purveyor of vitally fecund myths)? These are the myths of our era and artists simply can't afford to ignore them.

As Jonah Lehrer says, the arts need to pay attention to the discoveries of science as much as science can't afford to ignore art. If, for example, poets go on singing the songs of themselves without paying attention to the discoveries in neuroscience that enrich our notions of what makes up a self, their poems will be the poorer for it.

This doesn't necessarily mean writing a book of poems based on the periodic table of the elements or a novel about the love affair between two neurons. (Rumor has it that Christian Bok is making "poems" using DNA code, which strikes me more as alchemy than science.) There seems to be a lot of gimmicky use of scientific tropes in poems these days, resulting in a kind of superficial cleverness, but no real depth. As with everything else, making science a significant part of art takes a lot of hard work, a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, in order to integrate the material fully. Unless science is something lived and loved, the art will almost inevitably be glib.

For someone naturally more inclined towards poetry and narrative fiction, like myself, this is a real struggle. The only science I pursued past grade 10 in school was biology and I only took math to grade 12 (when I was in high school in Ottawa, there was still grade 13 and my school offered three separate grade 13 math curricula). I've been reading Brian Greene's mercifully lucid book The Fabric of the Cosmos for over a year now, in very small increments, because I have a damn hard time processing what he's talking about. It's something of a comfort to know that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don't understand it. But what I'm learning from the book is just how rich a field of inquiry cosmological physics is. I hear people say all the time that they prefer mystery to knowledge. What a stupid choice, when you can have both at once.

UPDATE (Jan. 24): A lovely coincidence: so soon after reading the above mentioned article by Jonah Lehrer (whom I'd not heard of before), I encounter a reference to his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist in a footnote in Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia. I love shit like that. It's all, like, cosmic and stuff.

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