Friday, October 8, 2010

Science as art

Last May, I attended a conference in France at The Ecole normale supérieure de Cachan (ENS Cachan) to celebrate the 60th birthday of Joseph Zyss, a distinguished Physicist who has made many seminal contributions to the field of organic nonlinear optics. He is one of the founding scientists of this highly interdisciplinary field, which has moved into many new directions including such diverse topics as biomedical imaging and optical telecommunications.

In addition to many stimulating scientific talks, a special session was dedicated to Prof. Zyss's achievements. Several eminent scientists described his research contributions, and past students talked about the profound effect he has had on their careers and their lives.

Joseph Zyss is a multidimensional person who has many interests outside his profession; art and gourmet food. For fun, the organizers arranged for two invited talks devoted to the topics of art in science and the science of food. The culinary talk described the chemical basis for taste and touched on the interesting possibility of chemically synthesizing new foods.

The presentation on art was filled with reproductions of diverse art forms, making connections to science by juxtaposing works of art with mathematical structures and images of real physical systems. The talk ended with the implicit question, will art and science ever converge. My immediate reaction was that science is art.

Mathematics is the color pallet, clay, and media of Physics. While art pierces the soul through images and narrative to elicit emotion, science inspires a sense of awe and wonder directly through the intellect. A piece of art, such as the Pieta, represents a thing of beauty, exquisite in its execution -- recreating the artist's faith and passion. Science, in contrast, through its mathematical structure, encompasses all that is and can be in one grand yet simple set of theories that are intellectually beautiful, reflecting the ingenuity and imagination of generations of scientists.

A painting or a sculpture can recreate only one particular scene as a map portrays in miniature the geography of an area. In contrast, a theory represents everything. It is a kind of universal art that portrays all AND always. It has both predictive power and leads to a deep understanding of all things. To me, the most spiritually intense response comes from seeing the universe through the inner eye of science.

Professor Zyss is a scientist whose life has left and continues to leave many significant brush strokes on the fabric of science. Our ambitions draw each of us to the canvas in hopes that our mark will be permanent, tantalized by the beauty of what has already been revealed, in awe of the larger image that is slowly coming into focus. I am privileged to stand before the canvass, to marvel at its beauty, and to participate in humanity's efforts to leave a mark, even if my work gets covered over by those who follow.

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