Sunday, May 22, 2005

What immortal hand or eye...

With the publication almost a half-century ago of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures, it became fashionable to look for ways in which science and the humanities are interrelated. Usually this took the form, say, of finding references to Renaissance astronomy in John Donne's poetry or to the Second Law of Thermodynamics in Thomas Pynchon's novels.

All such borrowings, it seems to me, are superficial. If John Updike writes delightful verse on such themes as neutrinos and planets, we can conclude that Updike is scientifically literate, but not that science and art are fundamentally related. At the level of artistic and scientific expression, the chasm between the two cultures is as wide as ever. If there is a unity at some deeper level, it will take an archeologist to reveal it.

Yet if we dig deep enough, we will discover that the roots of science and art draw upon the same nutrients in the soil. Some of those nutrients are undoubtedly genetic; others are cultural. The imagination -- scientific or artistic -- feeds on what it finds.

Here is a 19th-century example of the deep unity of science and art, drawn from the electromagnetic field theory of James Clerk Maxwell and the art of William Blake. At first glance, the two would seem to have nothing in common. Blake railed against the science of his time, and Maxwell is certainly not noted as a connoisseur of art.

Maxwell's great work, the Treatise On Electricity and Magnetism, published in 1873, gave mathematical expression to the experimental research of Michael Faraday and united in one beautiful mathematical theory everything that was known about electricity, magnetism and light.

Chief among the ideas Maxwell took from Faraday is the "field," a kind of tensioning of space caused by electricity. In Faraday's brilliant intuition, the space around charged objects is resilient with possibility, like a stretched rubber sheet. This vibrancy of space is the electric field. You can't see it, weigh it or touch it, but you can describe it mathematically and even draw pictures of it.

Included in Maxwell's Treatise are drawings of electric fields around charged objects. When I first looked at these drawings 40 years ago, I had the uncanny feeling that I had seen them before, a sense of deja vu. And then I remembered: William Blake's Book of Job.

I fetched Blake's Job and was surprised to find that many of Maxwell's field drawings were remarkably evocative of one or another of Blake's engravings.

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What does one make of this? Coincidence? A fluke of form, like finding a face in the clouds? Or is it possible that digging down one might discover that Maxwell's electromagnetic fields and Blake's powerful biblical images have roots that twist together? Could an archeologist of ideas find the underlying unity?

Faraday invented the field while experimenting with wires, magnets and batteries during the very years when, in another part of London, Blake was engraving illustrations for Job. Faraday sprinkled iron filings near magnets and thought he saw in the swirling patterns of the iron grains an energy inherent in space itself. For the rest of his life, the problem of how force was transmitted between bodies of matter, and even through empty space, was his chief preoccupation.

Blake, too, was possessed by ideas of energy, force and motion. In his art he tried to visualize the invisible spiritual energy that surrounds bodies and is inseparable from them. Blake shared with Faraday a passion for experiment. The language of Faraday's physics -- spatial energy, lines of force, attraction and repulsion of contraries, symmetry and the breaking of symmetry -- apply equally to Blake's art.

An archeologist of ideas would trace the roots of Maxwell's field drawings back through Faraday to Faraday's mentor Humphry Davy to Davy's friend the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (and the idea of the universe as a "cosmic web") to... Somewhere in the subterranean passages of Europe's psyche, from which sprang Revolution and Romanticism, somewhere in the murky subconsciousness of the race, an archeologist following the thread of Maxwell's thought would encounter Blake's Tyger, burning bright in the forest of the night, physical force poised to spring, fearfully symmetric.

(This is a revised version of an essay that appeared in the Boston Globe July 24, 1989. At the time, it was impoossible to illustrate the essay with more than a single pairing of the images of Blake and Maxwell. At last, I can roll out more.)

Further Reading

Blake's illustrations for Job are available in several editions.

Back in the mid-1960s, when I first began exploring the intersections of art and science, I was influenced by a pathbreaking series of books edited by the Hungarian-American artist and Director of the Center for Visual Studies at MIT Gyorgy Kepes. These books are musts for any college library. They were originally published by George Braziller, NY, and are now, sadly, out of print.

   The Education of Vision
   Structure in Art and Science
   Module, Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm
   The Man-made Object
   Sign Image, Symbol
   The Nature and Art of Motion

Kepes's own The Language of Vision is still available in a Dover reprint.

A classic work on symmetry in art and science is physicist Hermann Weyl's Symmetry, published by Princeton Universty Press in 1952, and still available as a Princeton reprint.

A fitting contemporary successor to Weyl's book is physicist Frank Close's Lucifer's Legacy: The Meaning of Asymmetry.

Stuident Activities

  1. The physicist Hermann Weyl, mentioned above, is reported to have said, perhaps not altogether seriously, "My work always tried to unite the truth with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful."
  2. Can you think of any example where one might have to choose between truth and beauty? If so, which would you choose?
  3. Who said "Truth is beauty, beauty truth -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.