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La science (n')e(s)t (pas) l'art :  Brèves rencontres

by Jean-Marc Levy-Leblond
Editions Hermann, Paris, France, 2010
222 pp. 24.00€
ISBN: 978- 27056-6945-4.

Reviewed by Jacques Mandelbrojt

In this provocative book entitled with humour both “science and art” or “science isn’t art”, Levy-Leblond, physicist and essayist, examines, in a critical and subtle manner, similarities, often expressed by scientists, between art and science. The chapters like essays explore different points of view on these similarities. He concludes with his own brief encounters with art as a scientist.

Levy-Leblond starts by examining the nature of beauty in science and if beauty implies art. Scientist among the greatest, insist on the criteria of beauty in science, and some such as Hermann Weyl or Dirac go as far as to assert that aiming at beauty is more important than aiming at truth for advancing in science. But how many splendid theories have been overthrown by miserable experiments as biologist and philosopher Thomas Huxley pointed out. Levy-Leblond notes that while scientists talk of beauty in science, modern or contemporary art does not refer to beauty. Actually most scientists who speak of beauty in science refer to traditional pre-romantic or even platonic beauty.

What is a beautiful theory, what is a beautiful experiment, a beautiful proof of a theorem?  The beauty of a scientific statement or proof is linked to its simplicity, to its generality. Perhaps the true beauty of science lies, as it does in most human activities, in the adequation between the instruments and their function. A beautiful formula, a beautiful experiment is one that is adapted to its purpose with the maximum of simplicity and efficiency. In science only a long work can remodel the original ideas to get rid of all its useless aspects and lead to (temporarily) final expressions. Levy-Leblond gives the example of Kepler's laws of planetary motion: it took more than a century to realize that they were the consequences of Newton’s laws of gravitation.

And what if the feeling of beauty was the illumination scientists have at the moment when they suddenly understand a new aspect of nature? Two concepts, according to Levy-Leblond, should replace that of beauty: adequation and power:  Adequation of the ideas to the phenomena being studied, and the power of these ideas––that is, the fact that they can apply to numerous different phenomena.

Levy-Leblond examines several aspects of images in science. Modern technology has led science, since 1970, to discover fascinating images of the microcosms or the macrocosms or of biology, but should these images be considered as art? The beauty of scientific images compensates for the non-scientist the increasing esoterism of scientific concepts or theories, Levy-Leblond considers that publishing or exhibiting these images aims mainly at making science more popular.  He notes furthermore that research scientists do not actually work with these images but with series of numbers or curves that would not have the same public appeal.

In the past century, art and science have had similar evolutions, first towards abstract concepts and, then, towards the use of new technologies. Levy-Leblond gives arguments to reject the influence of science on art this seems to imply, just as he is reluctant towards analysis of art made by psychologists of perception.

After having rejected the usually accepted encounters between art and science, Levy-Leblond gives examples of what he calls brief encounters between art and science. He gives examples of art works, in particular those of Morellet, Charvolen, Kowalski, Beuys, Anselmo, Rabinowitch, that take on a special meaning when seen from his point of view as a scientist.

Several examples are in the domain of art and mathematics. Here again Levy- Leblond starts, rightly so, by being very critical of the interpretation of art historians who artificially find the golden ratio on works by artists who did not actually use these rules. He then goes on to examine how artists can play around with numbers to create works of art. Morellet for instance, makes complex works using elementary rules.

Other striking interpretations of works of art are rather in the domain of epistemology: The works of Max Charvolen strikingly evoke to Levy-Leblond the way a scientific theory sticks so to speak to nature and then is torn away from it while keeping some of its essential aspects. Piotr Kowalsky shows how a same concept can apply to contrasting object such as an enormous pyramid made from stacked hay balls and a light suspended neon pyramid.

In conclusion, “science is different from art” analyses in a very subtle way relationships between science and art. It is very critical towards many naïve similarities that scientists like to find between art and science, but it does describe works of art that evoke to the author scientific concepts or procedures. This book can lead Leonardo readers or writers to discover a point of view different from that which usually prevails in Leonardo, and it can make them find their own path by comparing those two points of view.

Last Updated 1 April 2011

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