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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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This essay is in part motivated by an excellent Quantum Diary post, Art and Science: Both or Neither, written by a fellow TRIUMFonian, Jordan Pitcher.  He explores the incommensurability of art and science. In response, this essay is about related matters of art and taste such as if the original Bugs Bunny cartoons represent the pinnacle of the cartoon trade (beyond debate) or if my essays are worth reading (debatable).

Now, science is about learning how the universe operates, but there is more to life than that; he says while listening to: Oh, give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll, And drift away[1]. I do not know if that is art but it is certainly not science. This brings us to the aesthetic side of life, including music, art, literature, theatre, movies, and cartoons (see above). With art, my house is full of the pictures my mother-in-law painted and it ain’t half bad stuff. I particularly like the autumn scenes. Similarly, I have my tastes in literature (I particularly like a good Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) detective story—and don’t say that is not literature); theatre (Wicked was not bad); movies (I took my daughter to The Smurfs[2] but can skip movies with no loss); and the appropriate use of grammar (ain’t, ain’t half bad[3]). That brings me to fonts: Is comic sans really that bad? And I have seen major disagreements on the relative merits of sans serif versus serif—a plague on both your houses. And do not forget food; a fried mackerel would go real good about now.

I lived through the culture wars of the 1960s and it turned me off culture wars—meaningless arguments over personal preferences.  There were great debates about whether rock and roll was legitimate music or the work of the devil. There was even a debate about whether the lyrics of one particular song (Louie Louie) were obscene, but no one could tell what the lyrics actually were so the argument was moot. Similarly, is abstract art really art or can art only be more realistic works like Rubens (1557 – 1640)? Hmm, perhaps that is not the best example but there can be no doubt that the arts enrich life. Again, perhaps Rubens might not be the best example.

A central characteristic of science is that it has mechanisms, comparison to observation, and parsimony to uniquely determine which model or approach is best. But there are no similar criteria to decide if Beethoven (1770 – 1827) is really better than the Beastie Boys (1981 – 2012). I do not particularly like either (Oh, give me the beat). Considering Beethoven’s staying power and the Beastie Boys record sales, I guess I am in a minority. So it is across the whole scope of the arts; some people like one thing and some another. One should not mistake personal preference for objective reality, but give me that beat.

It is also not a scientist versus humanitarian kind of thing. The likes and dislikes cut across that divide. Perhaps the likes of scientists may be tilted in a somewhat different direction but the spread in each group is large. There is, instead, a large upbringing and cultural influence on what ones likes and dislikes. My Asian born daughter loves sushi but my Nova Scotian raised relatives would not touch it with a three metre (roughly ten foot) pole. The choice of preferred music, art, food, etc depends at least in part on what one was exposed to while growing up. There is probably even a genetic component to what one likes and dislikes. I inherited my like for and ability in mathematics from my mother; similarly my inability to write coherently. The latter plagued my time in school and university. What one sees has a genetic component; as in colour blindness. There are also studies suggesting some women have four rather than three types of colour sensors. It would be strange if inherited differences such as these did not affect our aesthetic tastes. Indubitably, some of the differences in our tastes are indeed in our brains—either acquired or inherited.

The one downside of all the differences in taste is that some denizens of the art world think that since the arts have no or only weak objective standards, science cannot have any either. This leads to nonsense like the claim that science is purely cultural. Conversely, there is the equally ridiculous perception that the arts should have objective standards like science. Salt herring is an acquired taste (shudder).

So let us recognize that science and the arts are indeed very different in how they make judgments and celebrate the diversity permitted by the subjectivity in the arts. After all, life would be very boring if all we had to read was Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) or Farley Mowat, (b. 1921).

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.



[1] From the song Drift Away written by Mentor Williams

[2] I particularly liked Azrael although my sister says I am like brainy smurf (not a compliment).

[3] See A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler (1858–1933)

  • Mike Will

    I enjoy your essays, especially the ones about modeling. I recently came across a good piece entitled “Why Model” by J. Epstein http://www.santafe.edu/media/workingpapers/08-09-040.pdf

    Several points are made therein:
    – we *all* model implicitly, due to the human nature of thinking about the future
    – scientists model explicitly (e.g. Archimedes)
    – such models can be calibrated to data at least to some degree
    – they can allow for sensitivity analysis (mapping of key regions)
    – predictive power alone does not a model make
    (16 other good reasons for building models are given!)
    – he then mentions the Anasazi like any good agent-based modeler
    – he then mentions Maxwell like any good scientist (or Scot)
    – he quotes Picasso:
    “Art is a lie that helps us see the truth.”
    giving art at least one clear advantage over science

    It’s nice to read folks who can appreciate both parsimony and diversity.
    Thanks Byron.

  • Ralf Kaiser

    Hi Byron,

    enjoyed your essay, but have to come down on the side of Beethoven and
    can’t follow you where the fried mackarel is concerned.

    Cheers, Ralf

  • Arlene

    I appreciate your post. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my father several times during college. I studied Anthropology and he is a professional Civil Engineer. He got me through all of my pre-college math classes at the kitchen table while I grew up. When I was in college, if he read any of my final class papers, he would often say ‘I don’t understand how you know what to write’. I’d ask what he meant. He’d say something along the lines of, ‘this all seems so random to me’ (meaning not inscrutable). It was interesting to me that he felt that way because math always felt so intangible and frankly, random to me. Imagine me saying that to a math lover! We accepted our differences and left it at that. Interestingly, I came to use math in my studies (we used Pythagorean theorem to lay in a grid while mapping our archaeology field school site) and something clicked.

    Anthropology is certainly not art (though, famously within the science itself, scholars have struggled to make it a science with defensible data that tells us something about the cultures of the past). Having said that, art does use math sometimes (perhaps more often than you might think).

    Many people agree that some people are natural born math wizards and other are not. I see the division between art and math this same way. The thing my dad always said to me when I did anything creative is “How did you make that?!” and “I could never make that!”. My point being we’d all agree there’s a place for both artists and mathematicians in this world, and perhaps more than an opportunity for admiration. Perhaps (see the current issue of Portland magazine) artists and mathematicians (and other science practitioners) could unite to not only solve problems (thinking outside of the box – maybe even Pythagorean’s triangular-shaped one) but even to create together, too.

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