WHEN I was asked to present a short talk last week at the Ateneo Art Gallery with a topic on art and science, a lot of friends and colleagues were excited, and at the same time intrigued, by the idea of a physicist talking to a predominantly artist audience. This stems from the notion that there is a tight separation between the two disciplines—something that is assumed by many but is always disproved in practice.
I have heard a comment in a similar vein from one colleague from the Humanities. She pointed out in a forum that as scientists deconstruct the world by looking at its constituent molecules, atoms and the interactions between them, one fails to see the beauty in all of these—as if the scientist stops to appreciate beauty, and art for that matter, once he or she goes into “scientist mode.”
Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, has summed it up well in a story in the book “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” where he recounted of an artist friend holding a flower and saying that “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” Feynman disagrees and writes: “the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. . . I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.” He further adds, “All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
This added element of understanding the world makes it possible to drive creativity and make new things possible in art and in technology. Walter Benjamin in 1936 had already noted that art is a part and product of the historical and material conditions of its times. As new scientific discoveries and better processes opens new creative means, the production of things, and the production of art, changes as well.
Take color as an example: the palette of the painter has developed from the red, ochre and carbon black of the Paleolithic artists in the caves in France which they mixed with spit or fat and applied to the porous walls of the rock around them. Iron oxide pigments composed of red, yellow and brown as well as textile dyes were available to the Egyptians but they enhanced their palettes through chemistry. Other colors were limited since these come from grinding semi-precious stones that were already rare in the first place. They were able to extract organic dyes from plants and developed Egyptian blue once they became a settled agricultural society.
The Greeks were able to develop the manufacturing of lead white that was used until the 19th century. During the Middle Ages, techniques to bind the colors onto surfaces were perfected such as egg tempera. Later on, in the Renaissance, the binding compound was replaced slowly by walnut or linseed oil, which dried slower than egg tempera and allowed for the more versatile use of paint thus spawning a variety of techniques in the period.
“Paint” as we know it or ready made pigments that you can apply on surfaces was made available as the industrial production of textiles necessitated the research on colorants and the manufacturing of colors for goods. The artist’s tin paint tube was invented in 1841 by John Rand and endures until now. The artist need not grind stones or do chemistry to produce colors, he or she buys the necessary pigments from a store. As oil paint and water colors became popular, textile pigments slowly filtered down into the artist palette to the familiar names that we now hear of: Prussian blue, emerald green, zinc white, cadmium yellow and cobalt blue.
In a collaboration of the Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research (VISSER) project with Martha Atienza on her Endless Hours at Sea exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery, we leveraged on the availability of rapid prototyping technologies such as the 3D printer, the laser cutter and the CNC (computer numerical control) mill as well as cheap microcontrollers, open source software and off-the-shelf sensors to actuate parts of the show.
Responding to the sound being piped through the speakers, a program written in Processing analyzed the waveforms, which in turn controlled the switches that caused the motors to turn on or off. These motors are the ones directly connected to the wave tank that Atienza incorporated in her exhibit. These technologies would have been prohibitively expensive a decade ago but is now accessible enough for everyone to use.
The division between art and science is an imaginary one. As with any aspect of society, they are deeply intertwined and enrich each other within the human experience. Both transform this experience in ways we do not expect and we only have to catch up as a society in terms of our relation to each other in order to make art and science blossom to their fullest in our midst.