Can Personal Meaning Be Derived From Science?

Published in Leonardo, February, 2014, Vol. 47, #1

Abstract: The artist has derived deep personal meaning from the vast and intricate world revealed by science. Beyond facts and alluring images, it helps to provide an overall context in her life. As well, she admires the ethic of concern for the integrity of research results.

The online version differs from the previously published version in that the illustrations are in color, and the text includes new concluding remarks. These address how the attitude of scientists toward truth and discovery has informed my own life dealing with people and this society, and how it informs my ethics. 

Figure 1. Deep Yin and Yang

In 1970, when I began using science material in my art, I had been married for a decade to a physicist. It became clear that he saw the world differently: he saw research as refining an overall picture of the world, investigation by investigation. This large context extended from nanometers to millions of light years. It revealed a tantalizing space existing beyond human egos.

When my children were small, I gave a talk to my child’s nursery school about “What is education?” My gut feeling was that a big reference point for everything else we teach is a sense of where we are in space and time. My means were crude, but inexpensive: scrapbooks in loose leaf notebooks that we perused together. The boys became men, but I continue pursue this vision of Where We Are.

It is wonderfully presented by the movie, Powers of Ten,[1] illustrating the progression from subatomic particles to galactic space; also by Robert Hone’s interactive museum exhibit with time-lapse movies called Seeing Time.[2] This exhibit cleverly used the analogy of an elevator going down to travel back in time, where changes in geologic features on Cape Cod that took eons, were sped up. On the “top floor,” the present moment, one could view slow motion videos of instantaneous events.

It was my privilege in 1996 to arrange for Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams to speak to a forum for YLEM: Artists Using Science and Technology at the Exploratorium. Primack, a researcher in cosmology, and Abrams, who introduced cosmology into her songs, told how they and others are putting together a new creation myth for our civilization. Most human societies have them, but the difference with this one is that it is based on research. Primack said the function of these myths is to teach each of us that we are part of a great unfolding saga much larger than ourselves. Without it, people are adrift in trivia, he averred, noting that the West has been without a generally accepted one since Galileo and his dispute with the Church 500 years ago.[3]

Primack and Abrams’ 2006 book, The View from the Center of the Universe, describes cosmology in layman’s language, but it is still rather complex for one like me to grasp. Moreover, new data will continually modify the story. Not an easy "Bible story."

The benefit of knowing comes not from the details, but from the wider view itself.  I am distressed that the overarching theme of where we are seems to be neglected in education. In particular, the existence of discrete levels of matter has fascinated me for years, which I first explored in a July 1990 Leonardo article, “An Artist Considers Levels in Matter."[4] In 1994, I felt it would be useful for me to paint a rough diagram of where we are in space.

Figure 2. The World of Small and Large

Every human should have such a breadth of perspective from an early age. I feel fortunate to have lived in a century of scientific images, and to be able to see them in my mind’s eye. Most of the images in The World of Small and Large were not available until the mid-20th century, but the innovative educator, Maria Montessori, was teaching such a world view in 1935. She put the need more eloquently than I:

“In school they want children to learn dry facts of reality, while their imagination is cultivated by fairy tales, concerned with a world that is certainly full of marvels, but not the world around them in which they live. On the other hand, by offering the child the story of the universe, we give him something a thousand times more infinite and mysterious to reconstruct with his imagination, a drama no fable can reveal.

“...[I]t will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than any interest and more satisfying. The child’s mind then will no longer wander, but becomes fixed and can work. The knowledge he then acquires is organized and systematic...All are linked and have their place in the universe on which his mind is centered. The stars, earth, stones, life of all kinds form a whole in relation to each other, and so close is this relation that we cannot understand a stone without some understanding of the great sun!…”[5]

More wondrous are things we cannot readily see. My husband’s work was with subatomic particles. To Montessori’s vision, we should add that cosmic rays and neutrinos are penetrating our bodies and surroundings continuously. In addition to humans’ noisy broadcasts, white noise of radio transmissions is arriving from outer space. All of these are happening whether we have instruments to detect them or not. People call scientists materialists, yet a big part of their studies is with invisibles, such as electromagnetic waves. Rainbows, lightning and the iridescence of birds barely hint at them.

For decades, I have endeavored to show people where they are in the universe with my art.

My Methodology

A 1970 drawing, E Pluribus Unum, was the first instance in which I used the round format. I experimented with other shapes, notably hexagons, for several years. Moreover, I used a variety of media, including the textile arts, to explore patterns in nature. By 1991, I returned to the round format. Sitting at my light table, moving the design around and around as I painted, was meditative, like walking the labyrinth.

My acquaintance with digital artists made me jealous of the glowing computer screen. I found I adored working with translucent acrylic paints on Plexiglas, because it also was vivid. I carved away paint to expose the “white” of Plexiglas. Carving resulted in well-defined line work hard to achieve with a brush. A further discussion of my technique is found in an earlier Leonardo article, “The Study of Patterns is Profound,”[6]

The Essential Mysteries series

 I spent many years enjoying all the surprising and paradoxical features of relativity and quantum mechanics. In my art, I explored patterns in nature. Under it all was a curiosity about what abides, what is always true. Traditional religious teaching purports to give us this bedrock, but I wondered whether it could be derived from the natural world. I have concluded yes, but it is neither “stuff” nor doctrine. It is process and relationships: mathematical relationships, relations of humans one to another, and our relationship with the natural world.

Additionally, I was attracted to boundary areas where not enough is known, and in some cases cannot be known, as Heisenberg decisively demonstrated in 1927 with his Uncertainty Principle. Since 1991, I have focused in my works on those questions I call Essential Mysteries, those questions which eternally intrigue us, and which science never can fully resolve.

Figure 3. An Essential Mystery: Number Governs Form

Beginning in 1970, I sought inspiration for my art in science images, which soon led me into an appreciation of natural patterns. In 1974, Peter Stevens in Patterns in Nature 6 revealed to me the mathematical underpinnings of patterns, owing to the nature of space and the process of growth. This guided my studies. [see my Leonardo article, “The Study of Patterns is Profound,”[7]. Just as the success of an aircraft is governed as much by fluid dynamics calculations as it is by the stuff of its constituent parts, so the material world as a whole is defined by mathematical relations and probabilities. This was a revelation and a mystery to me. I learned from my husband that the correlation between abstract mental calculation and the behavior of material in the real world is often startling. Antimatter, neutrinos and black holes first turned up in mathematical calculations, later to be confirmed by experiment and observation.

By 1977, the ability to quickly model and graph mathematical ideas by computer was having an impact on what would be studied, and how non-mathematical people like myself could know about it. The advent of fractals, “the mathematics of wiggles,” as Benoit Mandelbrot put it, enchanted me.[8] Complexity theory, which included fractal geometry, soon followed.

My painting makes the point that mathematics is evident even in very common objects, amethyst crystals and the flower of a thistle.  In this painting and the next, I carved crystalline shapes into the Plexiglas, which wonderfully caught the light.

Figure 4. An Essential Mystery: Energy Becomes Matter

One of the great mysteries is, why is there something rather than nothing? The mathematics of theoretical physics describes most of what we know about particles and forces that interact to make the stuff of our existence. This is the “standard model” description, which has been fabulously successful. There’s a hitch: it works only it assumes an elusive particle, the Higgs boson, which imbues other particles with mass. It took a 27.4km accelerator to create particular, powerful energy levels required to search for it, and in 2012 they declared success.[9]

Ever since Einstein published his theory of relativity, we have known that energy can become matter, which, in fact, created our universe. Contemplating the Big Bang (or the great Flaring Forth), I conceived this image. I based the breaking-apart image on mud cracks. In each of my paintings, I developed a new technique. Here, I experimented with airbrush.

Figure 5. An Essential Mystery: Life Creates

Here is my first painting in what I poetically named the Essential Mysteries series. Life Creates was inspired by a microscopic one-celled animal called a radiolarian. I used a black center to suggest the living  protoplasm. Around it, white lines represent the glassy exoskeleton it creates. It was spurred by a 1977 Scientific American article[10] on how these creatures processed molecules of silica from seawater to grow their shells. “Aha!,” I thought, “the creature and its lacy inorganic exoskeleton is a visual boundary between the living and the nonliving,.”

Over the extended period in which I worked on it, I realized that there were other boundaries to explore. I made a partial list, the nexus of what became this series. I generally produced one or two paintings a year.

In Life Creates, among the mysteries are: What molecules made by the organism attract atoms of the silica dissolved in sea water? Why do they form like the the lines between bubbles in a froth, a minimal surface structure? Why does only silica attach, and not calcium carbonate, which forms shells of other creatures?

A much larger question is how did life emerge from inert matter at all? Is it a rare, freak accident? This is the subject of much current research. In my studies, I found that Stuart Kauffman, one of the architects of complexity theory, has done much computer modeling on the origin of life. He has executed models having a variety of organic chemical constructs (not actual chemicals) that demonstrate the ease with which novel compounds helpful to life, such as chlorophyll, could theoretically come together spontaneously. Chlorophyll has enabled photosynthesis, and this single new molecular compound changed Earth forever. There are so many more examples that he declared:

“[I]f life in its abundance were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an unexpected fulfillment of the natural order, then we are truly at home in the universe."[11]