Magazine article The Spectator

A Bubble Chamber Has Nothing in Common with a Fashionable Art Gallery

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bubble Chamber Has Nothing in Common with a Fashionable Art Gallery

Article excerpt

This week I had intended to write about the Daily Mirror, which is now challenging the News of the World for the title of Britain's most evil newspaper. But more pressing matters have arisen, so the larrikins will have to wait. A book has fallen into my hands which has set me thinking so furiously that I have found it hard to concentrate on other matters. Professor Arthur Miller is professor of the history and philosophy of science at University College, London, and his new book, Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art (Copernicus, Springer-Verlag, New York, L15.95) sets out to do two things: to solve the problem of the Two Cultures and bridge the gap between science and the arts; and, secondly, to do this by examining the visual notation systems whereby scientists assist their thinking and put down their hypotheses.

These are two important matters and Professor Miller brings to them a profundity of knowledge (especially of physics) and a degree of originality which set the senses tingling and encouraged me to press ahead through pages of dense scientific explanation, jargon, maths and algebra in the hope of finding the Promised Land at the end. By Promised Land I mean the general theory of scientific and artistic genius, the equivalent to the unified system of laws which Einstein searched for (in vain) after he mastered relativity. I did not find it but in the process of searching I learned a great deal and came to some useful conclusions. I recommend this book strongly to anyone who is not afraid of hard intellectual work.

One of the main problems of science, as Miller explains, is how to express the inexpressible: how to set down on paper thoughts which are beyond the limits of visual experience. It is no accident, as Miller says, that relativity and atomic physics in the early 1920s were formulated by men trained to think and write in Germany. They thus had access to `the rich philosophical lexicon of the German language' and they had usually studied Kant at school. When Kant needed a word that didn't exist, he invented it. It was one form of creativity. He distinguished between the mere processing of sensory perceptions, which almost anyone can do, and the higher cognition, which he called intuition, using a word, Anschauung, which can also mean 'visualisation'. This kind of skill is vital to scientific inquiry, especially when dealing with colossal entities, such as the universe, and minute ones, as in atomic physics.

Of course Kant was merely doing in a sophisticated form what homo sapiens has always done, conveying knowledge by words and recording it in symbols. I have just been in northern Spain where the Altamira Cave provides vivid evidence of how men or women, 20,000 years ago, recorded knowledge, using charcoal, red oxide and the natural contours of the cave ceiling, in a form which we call art but which to them was science (or both). Anyone who has read Heinrich Schafer's incomparable Principles of Egyptian Art will appreciate that when true Egyptian civilisation was born, under the Third Dynasty, it all happened quite suddenly, this remarkable people acquiring their art, architecture, science, their hieroglyphic language and cultural style more or less simultaneously, so interconnected were they all. Their visualisation was aspective, or preperspective, conveying, whether in sculpture or on papyrus, not what they could see but what they knew to be there. …

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