30 August, 2011

30 Aug - Science is Culture

30-year old Adam Bly created Seed Magazine at the intersection of science and non-science to explore “a new way of looking at the world…like the renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the renaissance before us will be characterized by a revolution in how knowledge is gathered, synthesized, and applied to society.” Bly formerly studied cell adhesion and cancer at the National Research Council of Canada, was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007 and is recipient of the Golden Jubilee Medal from Elizabeth II. He has lectured at the World Economic Forum, MoMA, Harvard, the Royal Society, the National Academy of Science, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the State Department on the future of science and its role in society. His book Science is Culture is a compilation of five years of conversations Seed Magazine instigated between scientists and non-scientists as part of its Seed Salon series.

One of the most fascinating dialogs is the conversation between scientist and author Alan Lightman and choreographer Richard Colton. Lightman wrote Einstein’s Dreams, to date one of my favorite novels. The book follows young Einstein, living in Berne, Switzerland in 1905 as a patent clerk privately working on his bizarre, unheard-of theory of relativity. The book strays into fiction as Einstein goes home to take a nap, and subsequently has 30 dreams in which he works out his theory of relativity. Each dream is a parable of a world altered profoundly due to minute shifts in relativity. As described in its book review “in their tone and quiet logic, Lightman's fables come off like Bach variations played on an exquisite harpsichord. People live for one day or eternity, and they respond intelligibly to each unique set of circumstances. Raindrops hang in the air in a place of frozen time; in another place everyone knows one year in advance exactly when the world will end, and acts accordingly.”

Prior to their Seed Salon conversation, Richard Colton collaborated with Lightman to bring Einstein’s Dreams to the stage as a dance performance. The Seed Salon discussion is the continuation of a longer dialog between the two on the intersection and interdependence of art and science. A few highlights of the conversation: On artists’ fascination with science Lightman says “I think artists like to have their world thrown upside down. That’s part of what art is about, in my opinion. Artists like to look at things from totally new perspectives. That’s why artists have always enjoyed staying in touch with science. There’s a long history of salons and groups of both artists and scientists… Artists very much like to get new ideas from science, because they shake up their worldview, which is what they’re trying to do with their art.”

On why scientists are intrigued with the arts: “I think that one of the things that art helps provide scientists with is the language—and the metaphors and the images—to describe what scientists are so desperately trying to understand. Our instruments tell us that these totally unimaginable phenomena are happening, and yet we have no intuitive understanding of them. So we grope for language and pictures, and I think art provides some of these for us.” I must say, this resonates so closely with Jonah Lehrer’s perspective in Proust was a Neuroscientist – I would love to see the two of them in conversation…

Lightman and Colton discuss poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who in writing a letter to an aspiring poet advises, “learn to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, or like books written in a very foreign tongue.” Lightman’s interpretation is that “a lot of art is about the questions themselves. The question is more important than the answer. So I think that artists are much better at living with uncertainty. Ambiguity is an essential part of art.”

Asking new questions, existing with ambiguity, a new way of looking at the world. Like the world created in Einstein’s Dreams, I believe that we can create an exquisite new iteration of our world by exploring the edges of uncertainty, dreaming up new questions, ultimately reaching solutions that have until this point have been inconceivable and unimaginable. In the book’s introduction Bly describes that “science is a lens through which we can visualize and solve complex problems, establish international relations, and embolden (even reignite) democracy. More than anything, what this lens offers us is a limitless capacity to handle all that comes our way, not matter how complex or unanticipated.”