Sunday, October 2, 2005

Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain

Title: Art & Physics
Author: Leonard Shlain
Rating: Terrible!

I really wish I'd liked this book more. It's the 2nd in the pair I've been slogging through for months now. Sadly, in the end, I have to state that it wasn't remotely worth the effort.

I am not a physicist, but I have some interest in the topic. I am an artist though - specifically a stone carver. Add to those a technical background in software engineering, and this looked like an interesting read.

Shlain's thesis is that artists give advance warning of pending changes in science (or what passed for science a long time ago). To do this, he describes various events in science, and then shows how one or more artists introduced new forms that not only predate those new scientific discoveries, but also how they anticipated the nature of those discoveries and how that anticipation is visible in their new work.

As the book unfolds, I started off thinking the idea was interesting, but as the examples got more and more recent - and more contrived - I became convinced that he was stretching whatever he needed to prove his point. About halfway through I decided that Shlain really needed to learn something I was taught years and years ago:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Any doctor studying disease causes has to learn that phrase. And guess what, Mr. Shlain is actually Dr. Shlain -- "the Chairman of Laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and is an Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF." (Text taken from his web site Shlain should know better than to conflate causation and correlation - it should have been drummed into his head in medical school.

To put the problem another way, it is easy to go back and find all kinds of connections between items A and B in retrospect, particularly if A and B are big, broad categories like "Art" and "Physics". Doing so is trivial with the benefit of hindsight.

Nowhere does he actually justify his coincidences, he just states them, as it the fact that they are pointed out makes them true. (Another related phrase that came to mind is "proof by repeated assertion" which I found in Peopleware by DeMarco & Lister. But I digress.) In fact, in many cases, he mentions or quotes artists and physicists saying they know nothing about the other field, as if that helps his cause somehow. It doesn't, and his ideas don't hold together.

To cap this all off, in the last few chapters Shlain goes off to find a way to explain this amazing connection between art and physics. To do so he launches into a discussion of an overmind of some sort. Using analogy and mysticism in ways I was entirely unhappy with, he suggests that perhaps we (as individuals) are part of some larger mind, which exists fully in spacetime. We're not aware of the overmind since we can only conceive of space and time separately, not as one unified whole.


The book finally ends in a bunch of new age (pronounced "newage" which rhymes with "sewage") psycho babble, oddly mixed with ancient Greek mythology.

Nowhere does he discuss near or far eastern art history. Perhaps this art / physics connection is unique to western society. That seems odd to me, since if he was right and artists do have some mystic connection to coming future events in science, that would be the same regardless of culture. After all, we're all part of the same overmind, right?

Before writing this review I went to and read the reviews of the book, to see if others felt as I did. That was enlightening. Some loved the book; some pointed out gross errors in the physics. It was a decidedly mixed bag.

As I come out the other end, I doubt I can trust Shlain's layman explanation of the physics, I'm not at all sure I believe his explanation of some of the art, and I have reason to wonder about his grasp of reality.

Sadly, I suggest avoiding this book.