“I, a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.”
~ Richard Feynman
Is a flower the same thing to an artist, as to a scientist? How about to a dog, or a bee? Is a flower still a flower when smelled by a cat? What if the cat can only define it with a meow? Is a flower then, “meow”? Does beauty only have one face? One eye? One definition? If so, which will it be?
Dear Art, there’s Science written all over your back. We brought a scientist to “prove” it.
One of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of all time, Subatomic Underworld Master and Nanotechnology Early Father, Richard Feynman, often defended his multi-dimensional understanding of life with an uncommon scientific charisma.
In a wonderful 1981 BBC interview, he explains how a scientist’s perception of even the most beautiful and romanticized elements in nature may be, in fact, more complete and, as such, more demanding on the creative muscles than the artist’s dreamy(er) understanding of it.
Motion graphic designer Fraser Davidson, takes Feynman’s words to a new level of fantastic in this animated interface to his legendary Ode to a Flower.
“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.
First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which they also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure…also the processes.
The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting — it means that insects can see the color.
It adds a question — does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are…why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.
It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
The original recording:
I must be Richard Feynman’s artist friend—or someone like him, because I can clearly remember my self-proclaimed bohemian nature regarding scientists, not so long ago, with a rather boxed-up, asphyxiating respect instead of a mutual dynamic admiration, like the kind I have for artists of different disciplines.
But all the various living and dead scientists stepping in and out of my mind for the past decade haven’t just successfully activated the left side of my brain, but they’ve also managed to convince me that beyond its established form, Art is essentially the Art of Being Alive.
As such, it extends to any creative version of this force we call Life, in which we are all caught up, for the time being.
Enters Ricardo from another angle:
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part…
What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
Since when have Art and Science gotten divorced? Since when has Complicated started being synonymous with hard-to-grasp, boring, misunderstood, unnecessary?
Isn’t being alive itself the most complicated phenomenon in existence? Heck — it’s existence itself!
Do you realize all that needs to happen for you to even be reading this paragraph? Your eye alone has over 130 million light-sensitive rods-shaped cells that convert light into chemical impulses, which in turn signal it to the brain at a rate of a billion per second, which finally interprets the information, and delivers the “image” you actually (think) you see.
There’s an incredibly complex orchestration taking place in just a tiny part of your body — perfectly aligned and synchronized with countless others simultaneous operations, forming an entire ecosystem that needs to function optimally for you to be able to perform the simplest tasks. If your heart stopped beating, just once in 30, 40, 60, 80 years of life…just once…you’d be in serious trouble.
The question is not, why so complicated? The question is…what do you mean by “simple”?
If you look at the mess we’ve made of things for the past century (and I’d extend that to the entire millennium), you’ll notice that this fundamental separation between everything that we are, know and do — extends far beyond Art and Science. It’s probably been raining on us since the Middle Ages, when mind, body and soul became official enemies. The first Renaissance did its thing to reunite us with our wholeness, but it was seduced by Unlimited Progress, the Don Juan of death and mass (self) destruction.
And voila, here we are, exhausted after so much arguing with ourselves — finally realizing that, as Hippocrates (The Grandfather of Medicine), so beautifully put it, 2,000 years ago — before any of us were dreamed into existence, “There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.”
As Mr. Feynman, once again, raised his glass:
“A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms.
The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease.
How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on—remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!”
So the more you know the more you realize the little that you know? Is this where both — our Art and Science should humbly meet and kiss?
William Blake seems to echo it in one of his most quoted stanzas:
“To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.”
Time for a whole, more infinite and complicated Neo-Renaissance?
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