Sunday, January 07, 2007

Art and science

Which of the following works would you choose to be lost, if only three could be saved: Michelangelo's Pieta, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Mozart's Don Giovanni, or Einstein's 1905 paper on relativity.

French microbiologist Antoine Danchin asked this question in his book, The Delphic Boat: What Genomes Tell Us.

The answer is easy, he says. Trash Einstein's paper.

Not because Einstein's theory of relativity is any less creative or any less important than the works of Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart. In the long run, relativity may have vastly more significance for human life than the work of any single artist.

However, if Einstein had not invented relativity, someone else would have done so. The idea was in the air in 1905. Sooner or later, every detail of Einstein's work would have been reproduced by someone else, or by a group of people.

The same is true of most big breakthroughs in science. Newton's theory of universal gravitation was probably inevitable in the late-17th century, if not from Newton then from Robert Hooke, say, or Gottfried Leibnitz. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was conceived simultaneously by Alfred Russel Wallace.

But if Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart had not lived, the works of their particular geniuses would be lost forever.

And so, says Danchin, we can dump Einstein's work on relativity in confidence that the ultimate course of scientific discovery would have been more or less unchanged.

Perhaps there are other reasons to prefer the artists to Einstein. The Pieta, Hamlet, and Don Giovanni do not, as far as I know, have a downside. Relativity, on the other hand, had its most dramatic confirmation in the horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The shadow of Einstein's brilliant idea hangs over history like a dark cloud.

But relativity also explains the Big Bang, how the stars shine, and why the universe is filled with light and life. Would we really want to live without that knowledge? Is the Pieta more important than the secret of the Sun? Is Hamlet equal to the knowledge of how the universe began?

Clearly, to equate a work of scientific creativity with a work of art is apples and oranges. The respective acts of creativity may have much in common, but the products of creativity in art and science are of a different nature.

Consider genetics, the subject of Antoine Danchin's book.

Perhaps the most important scientific discovery of my lifetime was the double-helix structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin, at Cambridge University and King's College, London, in the 1950s.

The scientists knew they were in a race, and they knew the prize -- the secret of life. The structure of DNA was a problem ready to be solved. Various individuals and teams of scientists in the United States and Europe were working hard to put the data together and draw the appropriate conclusion. A particularly suggestive X-ray photograph of DNA crystals by Franklin was the key that let Watson and Crick cop the prize.

Of course, Michelangelo was in something of a competition, too, with his artistic rivals, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian. In the end, the artists were all winners. But DNA has a unique structure, and only one scientist or team of scientists could be the discoverer.

And what a discovery! That all of life shares the same "four-letter" chemical code, arrayed along a winding staircase molecule that unzips down the middle to copy itself, or to string amino acids together into proteins -- molecular machinery of stunning simplicity that weaves a living fabric of almost infinite diversity.

Knowledge of the structure of DNA will live as long as Michelangelo's Pieta, Shakespeare's Hamlet, or Mozart's Don Giovanni, and maybe -- if they are lucky -- future generations will remember Watson, Crick and Franklin too. But if those particular scientists had not discovered the double helix, someone else would have done so soon. The same can be said for the discoveries of Newton, Darwin and Einstein.

Both scientific and artistic creativity take place at the interface between mind and world. But scientific discoveries reach into the world for their authentication; artistic creations stand or fall by reference to mind.

The works of a great artist are the unique products of a particular human brain. It is easier to imagine history without the play Hamlet than it is to imagine history without the man Shakespeare. A Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Mozart is more profoundly to be treasured than any single work of their art. In science, we can make do without the discoverers, but it is inconceivable that we could do without the discoveries.

Further Reading

Antoine Danchin, The Delphic Boat: What Genomes Tell Us.

Sad to say, Rosalind Franklin's contribution to discovering the structure of DNA has already been mostly forgotten. Partly because of her early death (would she have shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick had she lived?). Partly, personality; she was in competition with two enormous egos. Perhaps anti-Semitism. And, of course, there is the matter of her gender. There are several biographies. The one I have read is Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.

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