Science and art: Similar but different

112-73Science and art are two forms of knowledge. Comparing one with the other is interesting both because of their similarities and their differences.

Understanding is looking for what is common among the different, and both kinds of knowledge, science and art, try, in the long or the short term, to understand reality. In that they are alike. But science tries professionally to understand with the minimum ideology possible, while art not only sidesteps the problem but also turns very frequently into a way of transmitting an entire world view. There lies a difference.

Intuition is a slight and delicate brush between what we already understood and what we still do not understand, between what has already been observed and what has not been observed, between what has already been felt and what has not been felt. Intuition is present both in the creation of science and in the creation of art. There lies a similarity. However, the greatness of science is that the scientist can understand without intuition, especially with regards to the intuition that thrives on the direct observation of the world. At the beginning nobody intuits quantum physics, for instance, for the simple reason that the microscopic world of particles and atoms is beyond our perception. In other words: there are no quantum observers. Nevertheless we understand quantum phenomena as the solution to the Schrödinger equation. The greatness of art, however, is that it can intuit without the need to understand. There lies another difference. And here is perhaps the relationship, maybe the only relevant relationship, that can be established between science and art: when the artist provides scientific insights to scientists and the scientist provides artistic understandings to artists.

Science is theory, art is practice. They are, indeed, because a theory is knowledge that is liberated, removed, rather, from a piece of specific reality from which it has been deduced to later be projected onto a much broader field, the broader the better (field of validity of the theory). And also because practice is a knowledge that indissolubly sticks to a piece of specific reality, for example a work of art. In science there is no distinction between the original and the copy. There lies a difference.

The scientist experiences every paradox between what he believes and what he sees intensely. Nothing is more interesting and significant than stumbling upon a contradiction. Contradiction can be the first warning of a change in science, the time to change the questions. Changing an answer is an evolution, yes, but changing a question is a revolution. It is one thing to exploit knowledge horizontally and another to gain knowledge vertically. Both science and art allow an answer to change the question. There lies a similarity. But, in science, a contradiction cannot be put off. Science cannot be inconsistent. In professional science, all contradictions are apparent. If it turns out that what I see does not coincide with what I believe, then I either change my belief or the way I look. In art, the most significant things are also centred on contradictions. There lies a similarity. But solving contradictions is not mandatory in art. A novel, a painting or a piece of music can exploit their contradictions without the need to solve them. There lies a difference.

The scientist talks to reality (experiments, observes), so does the artist (perceives, lives). The artist talks to himself (reflects, feels), and so does the scientist (speculates, reflects). The scientist talks to the rest of the scientific community (colleagues, students), and the artist also talks to other minds (artists or not, disciples or not). There lies a similarity.

Humanity has lived through moments when scientists and artists have been very interested in each other. Such moments are by far the most creative of their history.

© Mètode 2012 - 73. Online only. The Strength of the World - Spring 2012

Professor at the Department of Fundamental Physics. University of Barcelona (Spain).