The Poetry and Music of Science | Tom McLeish


Writing the book is an example of the
process or story or narrative of creativity that I was exploring
in the book. In other words there are all sorts of ways in which I tried to write
the book and couldn’t. There were hidden constraints on writing a book about
creativity in art and science that I didn’t realize were there until I
started exploring the territory. So the book doesn’t have chapters on scientific
creativity and artistic creativity That’s not quite true. Let me tell you how
it works. So it has an introduction that’s me saying, “what’s going on here?”
People think that there’s no room for creativity within science but if
you look at the case in point of what people have actually said, you find there’s
plenty. What’s happened in history… it’s something to do with the fragmentation of our
disciplines. We’re gonna have to do something about that. So off we set. Then
I do have a chapter on stories that scientists talk about
their creativity. And then the penny begins to drop, that there are these
three worlds of creativity. The visual, in which art and visual metaphor
in science exist. The text where poetry and novels and experimental science
and Goethe and Wordsworth and the early romantics. And then there’s the abstract
world where maths and music lie What I’ve discovered of course, given that I need
to do deep detailed work… I mean just having a book full of these
generalities I’m spouting at you now would be an immensely dull read and it
would also be indefensible. So I’ve actually done some very deep dives as
well as some metacognitive overview stuff The reason that the visual
metaphor is so useful (in itself a creativity) is that most of what we see,
we project. Our visual field is mostly invented, it’s not received. And
so the ancients who thought that visual… the vision was raised being projected
out of the eye were kind of from the point of optics wrong but from the point of
view of psychology, correct So creative creative innovation is there in
visual… that’s the visual chapter. The
textual chapter takes a comparison between Henry James’ “Art of the Novel” and
the physiologist William Beverages’ “Art of Scientific Investigation.” There’s a
very little red book from the early 1950s about the creative process in
science—also visits the wonderful mathematician Hari Poincare a who talks
about this deeply at the end of the 19th century, and looks at how Wordsworth’s hope
that poetry and science would would come to be married one day and the way that
Goethe and Humboldt (these pairs of scientists and artists were operating at
the early Romantic period) saw a future in which their hopes might flourish but
another future in which all might shatter. And then we follow the future
that happened which is the future in which all becomes shattered and divisive. And then the the the music and mathematics chapter (well, I talk about my
favorite mathematics and my favorite music) so as far as I’m concerned there
are composers and then this Schumann. it’s alone in there but Robert Schumann
is as far as I’m concerned the great night to grow the great 19th century
genius and he’s he didn’t just write new music he innovated entire Jean’s he
invents the piano quintet he also invents the the the concerto
quartet so he writes as far as I’m concerned the best romantic piece ever
written the concert took four four horns and orchestra so I’m worried going
around in the literature trying to find I need the musical analysis for the
concert jerk 4/4 one’s an orchestra it’s a fantastic piece and I want to write
about it structure it’s in it doesn’t exist it’s not there so Julian Horton my
my colleague and arm says what I’m am I’m professor of music here I’m involved
in her in the project on on nineteenth-century symphonic romantic
repertoire why don’t we sit down and write the analysis together mostly him
so well he might just say what it’s like to be an amateur horn player playing
this thing and so you will find the first ever printed published analysis
for the concert for horns and orchestra in in that chapter alongside a
no-holds-barred discussion of my favorite mathematical physics theorem
which is it’s called the fluctuation discipline
and it connects to apparently disconnected scientific phenomena if you
look closely under a microscope at a at a little bead hanging there in the fluid
you not closely and Robert Brown the botanist famously recorded observations
on this at the early 19th century you’ll see it jiggling around all the time and
so diffuses it’s called Brownian motion and it’s because of heat it’s because
it’s because of the chaotic fluctuation of the molecule molecular fluid is
suspended in all you can put some charge on it an electric field you can drag
them the fluid drag the particle through the fluid you might imagine that the
distance it diffuses in the world if left to its own devices and the speed
with which it will follow a drag force are entirely unrelated phenomena they’re
not there are two halves of the same coin the first is fluctuation the second
is dissipation and what is more that is a general coinage that exists in the
world all worlds of of heat and and thermal agitation from what’s going on
in our cells now to electrical circuits everything and it’s a beautiful theorem
because it connects two apparently different worlds in a mathematical
structure that it’s self connects with the physical world now in both the music
and the mathematics there is of course some materiality that’s symbolic and
I’ve wanted I’ve printed without apology equations and musical notation in this
chapter partly to illustrate and it can be just
for artistic impression as if you don’t read mathematical don’t read music don’t
worry enjoy looking at the symbols with which these creative people interact as
they innovate and and create then having done that as the core of the book I then
have to handle one topic which emerged as a surprise for me which was this
entanglement of the emotional and the cognitive or the affective and cognitive
this is when I need to have recourse to the medieval philosophy Brickley to MIT
because no one really has thought about this as deeply as they did Robin Gross
test for example right here in Oxford great Oxford’s man of the early 13th
century talked he taught the Oxford Franciscans
on his manual for the seven liberal arts why we do learning at all while we have
disciplines he had these two words affect us and aspect us the effect they
almost emotion and thought but they don’t quite a line they’re a bit mixed
between those two categories now but he describes how all study brings and the
emotions of desire frustration and joy alongside the problem-solving and the
cognitive and the conceptual David Hume takes this up and he’s not off notice to
have done this but this and then honest confessions by scientists and and
artists today will recognize this so we’ve dealt with that and then that
allows us to reflect on the material we’ve already read and then finally the
last chapter is called the end of creation and it’s a partner it’s the end
of the book finally at last but it’s also the end that’s in the sense of
purpose it’s why we do this why it is part of our human psyche is to be
creative there’s some philosophy here too not so much the medieval philosophy
although there’s a little bit as you can imagine we draw on Anselm as a matter of
fact the 20th century phenomenologist so Heidegger and iearnt Sartre have things
to say Sartre said for example the real purpose for art of art is to reflect a
nature as if it were a product of human imagination George Steiner the tree
scholar says that the art only through art can we reconcile ourselves bring in
to some measure of commensurability the sheer human analysis of matter and
Hannah Arendt talks about the gap between the human
and the nonhuman so this is the 20th century
experience of the need to reconcile us to the world this is actually strong
resonance with my earlier book that faith and wisdom in science which was
all about how science does that but it also calls on on the discipline of
theology and I’ve often said that whether you’re you know whether you’re
believer or religious believer or not one should in
even the most secular of university contacts make sure you have theologians
you may call a department of theology or just studies because among the
humanities that is the discipline which has maintained the critical toolkit to
handle teleology or purpose other subjects have kind of gotten bit
embarrassed about purpose but the purpose is important to all the human
endeavor particularly to recreate to a purpose so I say something about about
purpose and return to my favorite piece of ancient literature which is a poem
that’s actually found itself into the Old Testament it’s called the book of
Job and look a job for me is the most imaginative creative piece of prose and
poetry – and science because it asks questions about that about nature in
your whole of ancient ahold of ancient literature corpus and interestingly
there isn’t a serious there are very few serious philosophers who have thought
about philosophy written about imagination and our human predicament
who have not commented upon the book of Job so that’s where we finish

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