Two and a Half Cultures

Recently I was in Washington, D.C., and attended a local “Science Cafe” event featuring visual artists whose art is inspired by science.  (A theme for the evening was Leonardo da Vinci, whose restless mind not only created some of the greatest art ever but also pondered flying machines, tanks, and other investigations into technology and nature. The cafe even specially created a namesake drink, a mixture of beer, vodka, and wine which didn’t taste nearly as vile as it sounded.)  Naturally the question came up of the reverse: how does art informs science?

It’s become a persistent question, especially since C. P. Snow’s famous book on the gulf between science and the art, The Two Cultures.

Yet another recent attempt to address the role of art versus science is the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  The author, Jonah Lehrer, is a former budding neuroscientist turned science writer, and he tells the tale of eight artists who either challenged or foretold “modern” developments in the way we understand our brains. Walt Whitman and the mind-body problem, George Eliot and determinism, Paul Cezanne and Igor Stravinksy on how we perceive sight and sound, Marcel Proust of course on the nature of memory, and so on.

The intertwining of art and science is skillfully rendered.  Particularly intriguing in the section on memory.  Proust indeed understood both the plasticity and unreliability of memory — for example, the location of a beauty mark on the face of Albertine,  the narrator’s lover, wanders during the course of the novel — and the famous ability of smell and taste to trigger memory, a fact rigorously and scientifically confirmed.

Lehrer goes a little deeper: how is memory chemically fixed in our brains?  This story is still in its rough drafts, but Lehrer points to recent work by his own scientific mentor on a protein that acts suspiciously like a prion.  A full discussion of prions is beyond the scope of this post, but briefly: prions are molecules behind neurodegenerative diseases such as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, and have two key characteristics. First, prions can switch between two distinct configurations, and second, in one configuration they influence other prions to also change shape. Eric Kandel and Kausik Si discovered a molecule, cytoplasmic polyadenylation element binding protein or CPEB to its friends. CPEB may play a role in memory; it also looks and acts suspiciously like prion.

I’m disappointed Lehrer only spends a couple of pages on this fascinating idea: memory as infection.  I could have read a whole book on the topic.


While individually the chapters are fascinating and easily devoured, the thesis of the book as a whole is somewhat strained: as so often is the case in our hyper-egalitarian and postmodern everything-is-a-text, everything-is-a-narrative world, Lehrer is trying to make the case for a kind of gnostic vision on the part of certain artists: that Proust had an intuitive understanding of memory that anticipated later scientific discoveries, that Gertrude Stein was a precursor to Noam Chomsky, and so on.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Lehrer discusses what what appears to be the root motivation of the book: science envy.  Science is not mythology, but many people see science as if it were, the most powerful source of guiding narrative and validation of our age.

In this final chapter, Lehrer gets it right, rejecting postmodernism’s labeling of science as merely one narrative among others: “No truth is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that all truths are equally imperfect” [emphasis his].  He also, correctly, rejects the idea of worshipping science as the only source of truth. Science is powerful precisely because it does not and cannot explain everything.

And yet, Lehrer wants to eat his cake, too. He clearly wants to show that art has something to teach science, and not just beauty or compassion or justice, but that art has scientific truth to teach science.

But ultimately he fails. Science is all about systemization, things that are repeatable. While science may be inspired by anecdotes, scientific truth cannot be founded solely upon anecdote. And yet this is Lehrer’s whole method. He picks artists whom he found to have stumbled upon neurophysiological truths and wants to say, Look! Art knows Science! But this is like picking Bible verses to prove the Rapture will occur on such-and-such a day; or, for an example closer to home, picking a couple of science fiction stories to demonstrate SF can “predict” future technology, while ignoring the teeming thousands that got it wrong.  You can string anecdotes together to tell any sort of emotional narrative you want–and indeed this is how Art works.


One idea that struck me at the Science Cafe, and while reading Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that is everyone seems to overlook a very salient commonality between Art and Science. And that is, to a large extent, the practioners of science and of art do it because they love the process, not just the product.

Indeed, the processes of art and science have enormous amount in common. Both rely heavily upon mastering technique: the art preparation of canvas and paint, the scientist titration and precipitation of chemicals, and so on. It takes years of practice to learn how to draw properly, just as it takes years to learn how to quickly solve differential equations.  Furthermore, one has to learn the rules before breaking them. Picasso was an excellent draftsman, and couldn’t have become such an influential revolutionary without first mastering the classics. And, much to the dismay of crackpots who wish differently, you must throughly master standard science before you can convincingly overturn it.  Everyone thinks of Einstein as a dream-sodden outsider, but he even invented and patented a new kind of refrigerator; how more pratical could one be?

Picasso's Guernica

Art and science are, to the consumer, both like icebergs: one seldom sees the enormous number of sketches (Picasso made over forty sketches before painting Guernica) and calculations and false starts and blind alleys both the artist and the scientist must go down before finding something that works. Both art and science proceed by small, incremental variations that might, ultimately lead to a conceptual breakthrough.

Quite a few years ago I went to a retrospective of the painter Mark Rothko. Now Rothko is best known for his canvases consisting of two, or even just one, rectangle of color; the kind of thing you look at and think, This is art?  But Rothko didn’t just sit down one day and decide to paint a big blue rectangle, anymore than Einstein ate a schnitzel one evening and then wrote down his equations for general relativity. The retrospective showed how Rothko’s paintings evolved, year by year, through experimentation and tinkering, much in the same way Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman, Darwin, and the other greats wrote paper after paper with small, tinkering changes, until they finally achieved their breakthrough.

Mark Rothko challenges our assumptions about art

A good book on this topic, which I highly recommend in Creativity by Robert W. Weisberg.  I think it’s a shame so few others seem to recognize, and especially celebrate, the commonality between the sciences and the arts, which lie not so much in inspired insight but in (as defined by Thomas Edison, an inventive genius if there ever was one) the 99%–hard work, discipline, and endless tweaking of ideas.

And if Lehrer’s dream of a Third (or even Fourth) culture, that celebrates both art and science, ever comes to past, it will not come about by congratulating scientists on their poetry nor artists on their scientific truths, but rather by the shared recognition of the passions that drive the Artist and the Scientist.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.