What the mind’s eye can see

Guest post by Dr. J.R. Leibowitz 

My book Hidden Harmony: The Connected Worlds of Physics and Art has been cited as among the first serious efforts to address the fundamental connections between physics and art. The question of what unites them invites all of us to some understanding of what is truly basic to these two seemingly disparate realms. It is a reasonable objective for readers who have had little exposure to either.

The docent in an art gallery may choose to address some of the art historical allusions associated with a particular work. “Please notice the clues in this German Expressionist piece to what was transpiring in Berlin at that time. In this next painting, what is the historical significance of the placement of that vase on that particular table?” There is no question that such matters are interesting.

But it is also fascinating to imagine peeking over the shoulder of the artist engaged in creating a work of art from a blank canvas. How did the painter swim among principles of design and the virtually limitless choices among artistic elements, including hues, values, and forms, to get those aesthetic effects? The artist strives to create a coherent whole, a metaphorical symphony of interacting musical voices, a unity of directed intention. How rewarding it could be to trace out some of the distinct creations of mood and charm traceable to Cézanne’s brush techniques, or Van Gogh’s or Renoir’s.

A physicist might cite historical context as well. For example, one might simply look historically at the work of pioneers in electromagnetic discoveries. But how did conceptual insights actually build upon each other to make possible the theory of Maxwell? This interplay powerfully illustrates principles of design based on “symmetry” and “broken symmetry,” terms akin to those familiar in art.

To say that there are serious points of contact between a coherent physical theory and a work of art certainly does not mean to suggest that art and physics are the same in essence. But the eye trained ever so slightly to see needs no convincing here. A similar sense of transcendence lurks in the works of Cézanne and Van Gogh and Newton and Einstein.

Taking a quote from my book:

In a 1918 speech in honor of the 60th birthday of Max Planck, the father of the quantum concept, Albert Einstein, spoke of the distinct motives of different scientists for pursuing their calling. Among these, he cited the pure motivation of those like Planck: “Man seeks to form, in whatever manner is suitable, a simplified and lucid image of the world, a world picture . . . That is what painters do, and poets and philosophers and natural scientists, all in their own way.”



Dr. J. R. Leibowitz is a fellow of the American Physical Society and the author of Hidden Harmony: The Connected Worlds of Physics and Art.