Science and art seek same truths;Another voice;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
The way I was taught biology in London in the 1950s and 1960s was brilliant. We looked at the work of Jacob and Monod, the pioneering French molecular biologists who were just showing how genes could be switched on and off - the key to tissue differentiation and ageing. And we looked at evolution, inspired by a fabulous exhibition at the Natural History Museum to celebrate the centenary of Darwin's Origin of Species. At the same time I discovered Aldous Huxley - who would have been a scientist, he said, if his eyes had been better. Inspiring stuff. The rest has been footnotes.

But at Cambridge, which I thought should take off where school had ended, we focused on doing science: realistic of course, if you want to be a scientist, but not inspiring - or only patchily. I envied my friends who read English, partly for their perceived idleness, but mainly because their minds seemed to grow bigger, albeit somewhat drunkenly, while I felt I was serving an apprenticeship.

Of course, I was a snotty, unappreciative little git. John Kendrew and Max Perutz, who first described the 3-D structure of the protein myoglobin, were Fellows at my college, for goodness sake. But even so what CP Snow had recently called "the two cultures" was much in evidence and I felt I'd drawn the shorter straw. There was "science" and there were "the humanities": different worlds.

But science and the humanities should not be seen in contrast. After all, science is a humanity. Yet highly influential educators, even now, seem to be saying the opposite. In recent years Lewis Wolpert, chair of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, has stressed that science and art are profoundly different activities. I cannot put the entire world to rights in one brief article, but let us at least attack this appalling misconception.

The truth is as described by Arthur Miller (the physicist, not the playwright) in his excellent Insights of Genius (Copernicus, 1996) and is both beautiful and simple. Both scientist and artist, he says, seek to understand the world by drawing a picture of it, mental or literal. The notion is epitomised by the loose but critical discourse at the beginning of this century between the new quantum mechanics on the one hand and cubist painting on the other, under Picasso and Braque. Both depict the same weird world where objects are no longer solid and have no boundaries. Picasso and Braque knew no physics but - like the physicists - they were aware of the mathematician Jules Poincare.

More intriguing yet, Niels Bohr, who really made quantum physics weird, was inspired by cubist painting. We are used to the notion that painters pick up on the ideas of science, but in this, probably the most profound scientific advance of the 20th century, inspiration flowed the other way.

The deep ideas of science do not simply follow from the ideas that were there before. Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, argued that science advances by revolution, and revolution requires a leap in the dark. It requires precisely what poets call inspiration, a Muse. Great ideas in science well from the same subconscious that produces poetry and paintings. Geniuses are those who know how to tap the source.

So where is the difference between the artist and the scientist? It lies in nothing more nor less than Karl Popper's principle of falsification. The Austrian philosopher said that scientists aim to refute rather than to defend their hypotheses. Science is, therefore, a series of conjectures and refutations, approaching, though never reaching, a final truth.

Artists take their ideas, their inspirations and polish them, making them into the nearest possible statement on some aspect of the universe. Scientists take ideas - they can be the same ideas - and tease out the bits that are testable, throwing out all fancies and curlicues.

There is much talk these days of making science part of our culture. What most people mean by this is what what CP Snow meant: that people on the Clapham omnibus should discuss chemistry. But this is not the point, or at least it is only a part of it.

The point is to show that the artist and the scientist are bent on a common endeavour, which is to say something true and interesting about the universe, that their notions are complementary, and that for most of their journey they can travel in tandem, or indeed in unison.

Colin Tudge is a research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics.

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