Originally published in Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2002

E = mc2 = art
More and more, science is providing artists with the framework for understanding contemporary life

By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
Published January 20, 2002

Science in the arts used to mean those chunks of aurally pleasing but totally preposterous dialogue from earnest characters in "Star Trek" spinoffs: "Captain, try the zylorian two-ply quark crystals to achieve maximum warp density!"
Science in the arts meant long, complicated-sounding words uttered for sheer effect, or it meant bug-eyed characters with excitable hair -- a la Albert Einstein -- muttering theories.
Science in the arts largely meant science fiction: rocket ships, monsters, alien invasions. Great stories, but they wouldn't do you much good with your physics homework.
Increasingly, however, science, math and technology have emerged as serious themes in creative endeavors such as the current film "A Beautiful Mind," recent plays such as "Proof," "Copenhagen," "Arcadia" and "Q.E.D.," the novels of writers Richard Powers and Andrea Barrett, and the visual artwork of Eduardo Kac.
From the goofy robot in "Lost in Space" to the thoughtful speculations about artificial intelligence in the film "A.I.," the distance traveled by science in the arts is a matter of light years. light-years.
What does it say about our culture that we routinely incorporate science and technology in our imaginative mockups of reality? And is science -- which, after all, requires intelligence and hard work to comprehend its deeper mysteries -- trivialized by its widespread utility as a narrative tool?
"You cannot hope to understand contemporary life without a hard look at the ways that science and technology have overhauled every aspect of material existence," said Powers, author of novels such as "Plowing the Dark," "Gain" and "The Gold Bug Variations" that employ science.
"Science and its technological descendants are the premier intellectual, economic and social endeavors of our time," added Powers, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The science of understanding
Those endeavors can serve as ideal metaphors for human problems. In David Auburn's Chicago-based play "Proof," which won the Pulitzer Prize and which plays March 26-April 7 at the Shubert Theatre, the solving of a thorny mathematical theorem helps a daughter come to terms with her late father's intellectual legacy. His mental illness, she tells a friend, was manifested in "beautiful mathematics, the most elegant proofs, perfect proofs, proofs like music."
The play "Q.E.D." by Peter Parnell is about the life of the late -- and sometimes loopy -- physicist Richard Feynman, while "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn, playing Feb. 5-17 at the Shubert, is about the building of the atomic bomb. Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" turns on aspects of fractal geometry.
Those productions use math and science not only as plot devices, but as rationales for the very existence of the works themselves. As poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, "The world is made of stories, not of atoms." But lately, it seems to be made of stories about atoms.
Several factors may be at work in the glut of science themes in both popular and more rarified art forms. Prodded by technology, the pace of change in society has accelerated tremendously, leaving a residue of anxiety like an oil stain beneath a departed race car.
Scientific discoveries have always fascinated and terrified, attracted and repelled. But while in the past science may have seemed like the exclusive province of a few anti-social geniuses dabbling in arcane mysteries, today we know that we're all implicated in what scientists do.
"We have the sense about science now that so much can change with just a little discovery," said John Darnton, author of the science-themed novels "Neanderthal" and "The Experiment," which deal with evolution and cloning, respectively, as well as a third, tentatively titled "Brainchild," which deals with stem cell research.
"As a society, we sense that we're on the threshold of some very profound changes," added Darnton, cultural editor of The New York Times. "DNA, cloning, genetic engineering are going to be changing the way we live in deep ways. We're trying to come to grips with them by raising the issues."
The issues, of course, are not new. Back in 1818 in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein," science's light and dark sides were dramatically explicated. As the horrified doctor warns, "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge."
Scientific knowledge has always seemed like a mixed blessing for humankind, opening our eyes to things that, occasionally, we may feel we were better off not seeing in the first place. The great scientific breakthrough of the 20th Century, Darnton pointed out, still casts a mushroom-shaped shadow on the world: the splitting of the atom, leading to the atomic bomb.
"Science had constructed the sword of Damocles over all of us," he added.
The difference between science in the 1930s and '40s, when atomic technology was being developed and deployed, and science today, is accessibility. "The atom bomb was done in secret," Darnton said. "We never had what passes for a national dialogue on its moral implications."
On the front burner
Today, however, science and technology are on the front pages of newspapers and in the lead stories of national newscasts. We talk about science over our morning coffee; we argue about the implications of technology at the dinner table. That makes science themes part of popular culture in an entirely new way.
That kind of open discussion of scientific and technological issues began at least a quarter-century ago, when prominent thinkers such as Freeman Dyson and Stephen J. Gould began communicating with lay audiences, said Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Prior to that time, writing for the public was not considered worth a scientist's time. It was lesser."
Informing the masses
Those non-fiction essays about such topics as physics, evolution and biology created, in turn, a better-informed public more interested in scientific themes, Lightman believes. "It stimulated people in the arts. It made a lot of ideas more accessible."
For Lightman, whose novels include "Einstein's Dreams" and "The Diagnosis," science is a natural trope for a writer. "Science is an activity that greatly changes the way human beings see themselves."
In "Einstein's Dreams," Lightman presents a series of brief meditations on how time might be manifested differently on Earth: "There is a place where time stands still," one begins. "Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls."
Without an interest in Einstein's work, sparked by stories about him that were aimed at the general public, readers might have been puzzled by Lightman's novel.
Access to scientific discoveries by non-scientists also has even more directly influenced art. Eduardo Kac, an internationally known visual artist based in Oak Park, caused a stir two years ago with what he called "transgenic art" -- a rabbit injected with genes featuring the same fluorescent qualities as jellyfish. The point of the glowing rabbit, Kac said, was to start conversations about biotechnology.
Another reason that science works well for contemporary artists is that, from a narrative standpoint, it is unbeatably dramatic. The trial-and-error nature of the process by which scientific and mathematical discoveries occur -- the quest motif, set in a lab rather than in a medieval forest -- makes those discoveries wonderful subjects for stories. There is generally an arduous journey studded with setbacks and perhaps long periods of corrosive self-doubt, followed by triumph -- the "Eureka!" moment.
A strong appeal
Julian Palmore, a mathematics professor at the U. of I., said "the discovery aspect, the creative aspect" is the key to the appeal of science stories. "It's the individual striving to do something, to pull it off."
Such an epiphany is chronicled in "A Beautiful Mind," the film based on a biography of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. Nash's schizophrenia constituted a tremendous obstacle to his work on game theory. When Nash's publications finally are recognized by the world, the sense of triumph is akin to that of "Rocky" movie: challenges have been bravely met, a championship of sorts has been won.
The moviemakers gloss over the actual tenets of Nash's theories, which the average viewer might find dauntingly complicated, as well as other aspects of his story. Yet neither Palmore nor Lightman are unduly troubled by the watered-down versions of math and science that appear in art.
"No one should expect to get the real thing," said Palmore. "They should just enjoy it for what it is."
Plenty of freedom
Lightman said, "It bothers me if it's blatantly incorrect. But I think an artist using science as subject matter or as metaphor should be given wide latitude. I don't view it as an article in a scientific journal.
"The correctness or incorrectness of the sciences in art is not the major thing. The major thing is to be evocative and provocative."
Lightman said he disagreed with recent news accounts claiming that "Copenhagen" is fatally flawed by a mischaracterization of Werner Heisenberg. The latter, a German scientist, was the Nazi's point man in atomic technology; his counterpart for the Allies was Niels Bohr.
The play suggests that Heisenberg was troubled by the implications of an atom bomb and went to Copenhagen to meet with Bohr to suggest that neither develop one. Yet a letter that Bohr wrote but never sent to Heisenberg, recently revealed by the Times of London, seems to imply that Heisenberg was not morally conflicted about the bomb.
Lightman, however, said few physicists ever believed the benign portrait of Heisenberg presented in "Copenhagen," but many still find it an entertaining play.
No one would claim that artists in previous ages haven't also used science and technology as themes. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Darnton pointed out, writers such as Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells employed science in their works, many of which were allegories about the disastrous results of allowing technology free rein. Seventeenth Century British writer Joseph Addison composed poems based on Newton's theories, Lightman said.
"The moment you use science as a framework for your fiction," Darnton said, "you enter a moral universe." Science as a theme vastly expands the possibilities for exploring serious ethical issues in ways the public may find captivating.
And science can provide structure as well. Joseph Tabbi, a scholar of postmodern and electronic literature who teaches English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said, "There's a definite mathematical strain in U.S. literature from Poe to Powers. These are writers whose work refers to its formulas and geniuses, but what's even more interesting is the use of mathematics in giving form to the fictions." In an echo of Kac's use of genetic engineering to create his artwork, Powers' novel "The Gold Bug Variations" is "structured mathematically as a double helix."
For Barrett, much of science's appeal to artists lies in its language.
"I love the metaphorical possibility. I love its images," said the novelist, who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for works such as "Ship Fever" and "Voyage of the Narwhal," which weave biology, botany and natural history into fiction. Her latest book, "Servants of the Map," is a collection of stories about the 18th and 19th Century scientific world.
A different world
While not new, the use of science and technology as a theme in art seems of a different order of magnitude now than it was in centuries past. The things that art can teach -- among them, how to be human in an age of mechanical marvels and scientific wonders -- seem more relevant, and more difficult to attain, than ever before.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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