Art and Physics : Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1993-01-28
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Art interprets the visible world, physics charts its unseen workings--making the two realms seem completely opposed. But in Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain tracks their breakthroughs side by side throughout history to reveal an astonishing correlation of visions.From teh classical Greek sculptors to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, and from Aristotle to Einstein, aritsts have foreshadowed the discoveries of scientists, such as when Money and Cezanne intuited the coming upheaval in physics that Einstein would initiate. In this lively and colorful narrative, Leonard Shlain explores how artistic breakthroughs could have prefigured the visionary insights of physicists on so many occasions throughtout history.Provacative and original, Art & Physics is a seamless integration of the romance of art and the drama of science...and exhilarating history of ideas.

Author Biography

Leonard Shlain is a surgeon who practices in San Francisco. He lives in Mill Valley, California. He can be reached at Ishlain@aol.com.


Art & Physics

Chapter One

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.
—James Baldwin

Physics is a form of insight and a such it's a form of art.
—David Bohm

Illusion / Reality

Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense. Even the stereotypical proponents of each endeavor are polar opposites. In college, the hip avant-garde art students generally do not mingle with their more conventional counterparts in the physics department. By casual juxtaposition, these two fields seem to have little in common: There are few if any references to art in any standard textbook of physics; art historians rarely interpret an artist's work in light of the conceptual framework of physics.

Yet despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, "Organized perception is what art is all about."' Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions. While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.

Paul Gauguin once said, "There are only two kinds of artists—revolutionaries and plagiarists." The art discussed in this book will be that created primarily by revolutionaries, because theirs is the work that heralds a major change in a civilization's worldview. And in parallel fashion, although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society's concept of reality. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke referred to this sort of transcendent insight as a "conflagration of clarity," allowing certain artists and physicists to see what none before them had ever imagined, and it is they—the revolutionary artist and the visionary physicist—who will be paired in the coming pages.

Smile Zola's definition of art, "Nature as seen through a temperament,"4 invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word physis means "nature." Beginning with this common ground as a point of departure, I will describe the connections and differences between these two seemingly disparate ways our perceptions of nature are organized.

The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break "nature" down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the techniques used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "There is no science without fancy and no art without facts."

Insofar as science is the subject, I shall concentrate in this book on physics as it has developed during the last several hundred years. Nevertheless, the reader should keep in mind that present-day physicists wear a mantle that has been passed down through the ages. Physicists are the modern representatives of a distinguished tradition that winds its way back through the first scientists, Christian theologians, natural philosophers, pagan priests, and Paleolithic shamans, the exceptional of whom have contributed pieces to fill in the infinite jigsaw puzzle of nature. The first physicist was probably the one who discovered how to make a fire.

I single out physics in particular because in this century all the other "hard" sciences have learned that they are anchored to this rock. Chemistry had its beginning in the attempt to identify and separate the elements, and it came to be fused to the laws that govern atomic events. Astronomy began as a fascination with heavenly movements and advanced to an inquiry into the arrangement of the solar system. Today, in studying the galaxies, astrophysicists address the laws that govern forces and matter. From its origins in Aristotelian taxonomy, biology has evolved to the study of the physical interaction of atoms in molecular biology. Physics, formerly one branch among many, has in this century become enthroned as the King of the Sciences.

In the case of the visual arts, in addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting reality, a few artists create a language of symbols for things for which there are yet to be words. Just as Sigmund Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents compared the progress of a civilization's entire people to the development of a single individual, I propose that the radical innovations of art embody the preverbal stages of new concepts that will eventually change a civilization. Whether for an infant or a society on the verge of change, a new way to think about reality begins with the assimilation of unfamiliar images. This collation leads to abstract ideas that only later give rise to a descriptive language.

For example, observe any infant as it masters its environment. Long before speech occurs, a baby develops an association between the image of a bottle and a feeling of satisfaction. Gradually the baby accumulates a variety of images of bottles. This is an astounding feat considering that a bottle viewed from different angles changes shape dramatically: from a cylinder to an ellipse to a circle. Synthesizing these images, the child's emerging conceptual faculties invent an abstract image that encompasses the idea of an entire group of objects she or he will henceforth recognize as bottles. This step in abstraction allows the infant to understand the idea of "bottleness." Still without language, the baby can now signal desire by pointing.Art & Physics. Copyright © by Leonard Shlain. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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