Plus a few comments
I thoroughly enjoyed being interviewed by Indre Viskontas. By the end we resonated! I should just like to reply to a couple of points that emerged in her recap with Joe Hanson, a writer and host of the video series “It’s Okay to Be Smart.”
Indre seems to have misunderstood what I said about the scientific method. Certainly there is one taught at university to all scientists – employ control experiments, be systematic in your calculations, your published paper should be objective, and all that. But what I was getting at was that at the moment of creativity boundaries blur between disciplines and the illogical can even enter. Creativity at this level is a one-on-one battle with the scientist pitted up against nature – just about anything goes.
Johannes Kepler’s discovery in the early 17th century of his laws of planetary motion was steeped in alchemy, magic, religion and the Kabbalah.
Uppermost in Isaac Newton’s mind in 1687 was to devise a scientific edifice by means of which phenomena relative to human observers could be distinguished from phenomena relative to God. He says this at the beginning of his magisterial Principia, a tome with religious, magical and alchemical roots that served to kickstart the Age of Rationalism.
Einstein, in 1905, thought like an artist in discovering special relativity. In the very first sentence of the relativity paper he made it clear that he had no qualms about the equations of physics. What bothered him was how scientists interpreted them – in ways that led to asymmetries which in his opinion were not inherent in nature. He recalled that he found this “unbearable” and shaved them away with a minimalist aesthetic. The result was the special theory of relativity. In this paper Einstein introduced aesthetics into 20th century physics as a guideline for research.
Ten years later Einstein invoked his view of what the universe should be and set it at the crux of his generalized theory of relativity. It turned out to be the case.
Picasso reached outside art to current developments in technology, science and mathematics in order to create Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907.
Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics, made an important discovery in 1956 based on his analysis of one of his dreams using Carl Jung’s psychology, heavily based in alchemy.
I could go on. In their published papers, of course – with the exception of Kepler who reveled in the occult – all signs of any ‘nonobjectivity’ were absent.
Just one more point. Indre said that to her “science is about disproving.” I am not aware of scientists setting out to disprove a theory. Rather scientists work towards pushing theories to their limits – theorists by examining a theory’s mathematical foundations and experimentalists by performing experiments toward achieving predicted results. If any problems arise then they may become critical of the theory. But this is tricky because what happens next is not always ‘objective’.
One move scientists could make is to abandon the theory. This is sometimes done. But the theory might be so far-reaching that they may choose to tinker with it, or ask for the experiments to be redone or, in the extreme, declare that the seemingly falsifying experiments are incorrect. Einstein took this extreme tack in 1905 and the experiments that seemed to disprove special relativity turned out to have been wrong.
And Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman did the same in response to data that went against their 1958 theory for the weak interactions (radioactivity is in this class). As Feynman put it: “There was a moment when I knew how nature worked…[The theory] had elegance and beauty. The goddamn thing was gleaming.” The data turned out to be wrong and their theory correct. What Feynman meant by elegance and beauty was his belief that the theory’s mathematical framework could be generalized to include other interactions between elementary particles, such as the electromagnetic force and the strong force that holds the nucleus together. This came to pass a decade later with the so-called electroweak theory that unified the weak interactions with the electromagnetic interactions.
This also brings up the point that there is a concept of aesthetics in science as well as in art and that both concepts are undergoing a radical transformation as art and science merge. For more see Colliding Worlds and I look forward to continuing my conversation with Indre on creativity.