A mixed marriage that gives form to theory

September 15, 2006

The true shapes and big questions of nature reveal themselves to curious and keen minds of any field, says Martin Kemp.

They are the most fashionable couple in academe. Art and science were long estranged from one another, but thanks in part to generous support from the likes of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and the Wellcome Trust, initiatives to bring them together have never enjoyed such popularity. Nevertheless, there are those who wonder whether that money is really being well spent.

At its best, the alliance of art and science does not simply comprise suggestive juxtaposition or even issues of influence. It operates at its greatest power when it literally gets beneath the surface, dealing with shared properties of the human mind when faced with the complex wonders of nature. This is the level that I call "structural intuition" - the very fundamental level at which the very basic insight occurs, curiosity is triggered and the foundational questions asked. These insights commonly involve sensed orders - some elusively perceived pattern that lies behind the chaos of appearance.

There was no greater "structural intuiter" than the Scottish biologist and classicist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose On Growth and Form , which was first published in 1917, remains one of the literary classics of science. A quotation will give a flavour of his style of thinking.

"The waves of the sea, the little ripples on the shore, the sweeping curve of the sandy bay between the headlands, the outline of the hills, the shape of the clouds, all these are so many riddles of form, so many problems of morphology, and all of them the physicist can more or less easily read and adequately solve: solving them by reference to antecedent phenomena, in the material system of mechanical forces to which they belong, and to which we interpret them as being due."

An artist or poet can recognise these perceptions, though what they subsequently do with them may be very different from the scientific morphologist. Thompson himself recognised that the human shaper of artefacts operated along similar lines when working with the forms to which materials naturally lend themselves. He eloquently described a cup and saucer as "neither more nor less than glorified 'splashes', formed slowly, under conditions of restraint which enhance or reveal their mathematical symmetry".

In biology, Thompson's lines of investigation into the generation of natural forms have been rather smothered by the recent sharp focus on genetics. But in the arts, his example has lived on undimmed. We are not perhaps surprised to find that the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, who was trained as an engineer and whose sculptures parade a kind of "natural geometry", was a great fan of Thompson. To find that Jackson Pollock owned a copy of On Growth and Form is more unexpected - but not perhaps if we read what the biologist wrote on splashes. As illustrations, Thompson included Arthur Worthington's remarkable instantaneous photographs of splashes, showing the now famous "corona" created when a sphere is dropped into milk.

Generations of architect-engineers have been fired by Thompson's revelations of natural structure. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes stand in line of succession from the biologist's analysis of the skeletons of small marine organisms. The great engineering firms Ove Arup and Buro Happold were founded by Thompson enthusiasts, and there is more than a hint of Thompsonian engineering in Sir Norman Foster's roof for the Great Court at the British Museum.

Scientists may say that this is all very well. It just shows that artists and architects may be inspired by science that is not "right" - or not current. However, if we look at the issues through the filter of structural intuitions, we can take a longer view and say that there are enduring issues of order and disorder that are of recurrent concern to all students of nature, whether artists or scientists.

Even within the natural sciences, Thompsonian insights have remained excitingly productive, albeit for a current minority of researchers. The most famous of the later Thomsonists was the late Stephen Jay Gould, redoubtable adversary of Richard Dawkins. Gould recognised that there are long-established questions about the physio-chemical parameters for the development of natural forms not susceptible to solution through genetic codes alone. And there are now signs that computer modelling of morphogenesis and research into self-organising systems are breathing new life into Thompson's perceptions - many of which had fallen into the "so what" category because he had no explanatory mechanism to hand.

I would go so far as to say that when we have such an age-old conjunction of intuitions across art, science and technology, the basic questions will not go away, even if they become temporarily unfashionable in one or more of the disciplines. It may even be that artistic continuities not only relate to where science has come from but also hint at where it will to go.

Martin Kemp is professor of the history of art at Oxford University. is book Seen|Unseen: Art, Science and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope is published this week by Oxford University Press, £25.00.

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