Science is not a set of technologies and gadgets. It is not a set of dry equations and formulas. It is an amazing way of looking at the reality around us and seeing deep patterns and underlying structures. It is a way to simplify and understand the world around us using rational processes. Art, on the other hand, tries to achieve the same goal, but from a different direction. It allows us to make better sense of the complex world around us in emotional terms. Even the dichotomy between rational and emotional understanding is not as stark as it may seem at first. Everything that we feel emotionally, we cannot help trying to find reasons behind them, and every time we learn about a new surprising scientific discovery, the reaction can be intensely emotional.
Part of the reason behind this asymmetric appreciation could be the training and rigor that is necessary in order to understand and appreciate science and mathematics, whereas we can develop our brain to appreciate art almost naturally, just by being perceptive, sensitive, and by living our lives. That is not to say proper appreciation of art does not require training, but some rudimentary appreciation can be developed without particular effort. There are also some purely cultural biases, but we don’t need to get into that for this discussion.
Earlier in our cultural history there was a fairly well defined separation between what should be dealt by science and what should be in the domain of art. Science typically dealt with relatively simple material things and their properties and interactions. It tried to explain the mechanical behavior of objects, chemical and biological properties, forces of nature etc. Art, on the other hand left these simple systems alone and dealt with extremely complex objects and interactions -- like human behavior, emotions, and our philosophical understanding of our surroundings. Poets didn’t write poems about gravity or the intestine, and scientists didn’t try to explain why two people fall in love. That has started to change. Poets still don’t write poems about the intestine, but Scientists have started to probe the most complex human experiences like morality, emotions, and consciousness.
There is a strange misconception that by trying to understand some of these essentially human experiences scientifically we might destroy the profound joy and awe we associate with these experiences. Nothing can be further from the reality. Even if we understand that our sense of morality is a biologically driven adaptation, common to all human beings on the planet, irrespective of their beliefs or religion, that is in no way going to make us any more or less moral beings. Understanding the neurology behind love does not make anyone any less likely to fall in love. It also does not take away the sense of magic from these experiences. If anything, it makes us appreciate them even better, but in a slightly altered way. A young child may enjoy stage magic thinking it is “real magic”, but grownups can enjoy the same show, knowing fully well they are illusions. The nature of the appreciation may be different, but profound human experiences need not be magical to be enjoyed and appreciated.
For example, let’s consider the statement “each and every atom in our body was once a part of an exploding star”. From what we understand about the creation of matter in the universe, this is factually true. All heavier atoms were created inside some star when they exploded at the end of their life. There is such overwhelming evidence that support this scientific claim that there can be very little doubt about its validity. There are similar claims, though a little vaguer, in many mystical and spiritual narrations, but these claims are not supported by any evidence that can be verified or demonstrated. Verifiable or not, such ideas touch many people at an emotional level. However, when I first learned about the scientific knowledge that the atoms in my body were really part of a now-dead star, the emotional impact was just as profound, and I’d claim even deeper. The depth comes from the knowledge that the statement is not an isolated bit of unsubstantiated claim, or just the result of someone’s imagination, but a statement that fits in perfectly with thousands of other verifiable facts, and therefore much closer to the “truth” than any non-scientific speculation.
Even in the more abstract domains of mathematics and theoretical physics, anyone who experiences the moment when they for the first time understand Einstein’s theory of relativity or Gödel's incompleteness theorem, the feeling is just as profound as the best works of art can create. That is so because in both the cases we understand something very complex, and the sheer beauty of what we see overwhelms our mind.
It is a shame that so many intelligent and learned people never get to experience the astounding beauty that is Science. One does not have to be a trained scientist to appreciate this beauty – there are plenty of excellent popular science and mathematics literature that any intelligent person can understand if they try a little hard. It is no harder than for someone to learn how to appreciate good literature, good painting, or good music. The problem is not in the access to this knowledge, but the willingness to do so. It is the notion that scientific and mathematical knowledge is only for those professionals who are going to use it, and the rest of us can ignore it. By ignoring it, we are missing out on some of the greatest thing that the human intellect have ever created. By not getting exposed to some of the greatest mental feats, we remain intellectually poorer. It is also sad that we see so few works of art that are inspired by scientific understanding. There are innumerable ideas and open questions in science and scientific philosophy that can be expressed in the language of art, but because of the unnecessary divide between art and science, we see very little of that.
Science is getting very close to philosophy. Some people believe that philosophy, as we knew it, is dead, and what remains is physics and mathematics. That is, problems that were treated as philosophical problems are now getting handled as purely scientific issues. Philosophy has always been close to the arts. Therefore, science and arts are getting ever closer. I, for one, cannot see a sharp dividing line anymore. There is no need for “real magic” in our world anymore. The human race is at the threshold of growing up, where we will finally have the confidence that everything around us is ultimately understandable. We do not lament the fact that sunrise and sunset are no longer magical events that happen each day. We do not have to believe that earthquakes happen because of the movement of some magical creature. Similarly, we do not have to bring in magic in order to understand the complex human experiences and emotions. Science has started to step into the space previously covered by philosophy and the arts, and the time has come for arts to enter what was just the domain of science and mathematics.
Older Comments (4)
1. Abhijit Gupta said on 7/18/13 - 11:54PM
I remember how you explained your course study to me to test your own preparations for exams...You could explain any difficult thing to an artist and hence a layman like me...only if there were better teachers the problem of these compartments would cease to exist. I owe you my interest in science...Thank you :)
2. Jagriti Ruparel said on 7/19/13 - 05:58AM
Totally agree!! However, very difficult to grasp the 'Magic of Science' if one is not exposed to it as a child. We always remain handicapped in many ways.
3. Kunal Sen said on 7/19/13 - 06:10AM
Abhijit, I don't clearly recall the incident that you mention, but my passion for science has increased over the years as I got exposed to more exciting ideas. I cannot imagine that any curious mind will not find inspiration in these ideas, if exposed properly.
4. Kunal Sen said on 7/19/13 - 06:15AM
Jagriti, I understand the difficulty of getting into science at a later age, but it is still possible. The biggest problem is that we all grow up thinking that knowledge of science or mathematics is optional, in the same sense knowing accountancy is optional.