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Review - Art & Science - Siān Ede  

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The debate is nothing new. How do art and science come together? Are artists and scientists totally different types of people? What does each do for humanity? What can each discipline teach the other? It's a fascinating topic, and a timely discussion. But, sadly, this book is probably not the one that is going to give us the balanced and intelligible exploration that would be so fascinating for the real world.

Siān Ede is firmly in one camp, seeing the whole picture from an art viewpoint. Her scientific summaries have none of the feeling that goes into her comments on the artistic side. Even when she has just pointed out how scientists and mathematicians get excited by the beauty of an equation or nature, where modern artists see no beauty, she is lyrical about the viewpoint of the artists and dull and plodding about the science. What is particularly striking is that she accepts without question the validity of contemporary art, where she digs into science. It doesn't seem to occur to her that perhaps the reason very few people care anything about modern art, and think the whole thing is a big joke, is that what is labelled art these days may not be art at all (except in the medieval sense of made by the hand of man). She points out that most modern artists are cynical, but can't take the leap of realising that this cynicism extends to taking money for any old garbage, that much modern "art" is the output of self-deluded posers or frauds.

Ede can churn out the post-modernist cant that science only imagines it is dealing with reality, while art creates subjective reality, as much as she likes, but seems to forget there's a simple difference. You can test if science gets it right. Science getting it right can save your life. Feel free to argue that the concept of gravity is only a human imposition, not a matter of reality - but only if you are prepared to walk off the top of a 100 storey skyscraper to prove it. By contrast much modern art delivers nothing. Traditionally art has delivered emotional responses in the ordinary public, rather than the few who are educated to mechanically come up with the right response - now it's more likely to be the artist that gets a reaction, and for the majority of the public that reaction is either disgust or hilarity that anyone takes this stuff seriously.

Let's be clear here. This is not to say art isn't important - it is, hugely so. But hardly anything Ede says in this book is about real art or real science. Her art is the hollow modern failure to produce art that any but the inner circle can relate to; her science is an artist's caricature of the real thing.

So should this book be ignored? Not at all. Despite everything I've said above, it's well written, and nowhere near as bad as most of the material written in this vein (famously ridiculed by Alan Sokal in his intentionally meaningless paper "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", which was published in a cultural studies journal and lapped up by its audience until it was identified as a hoax). If you aren't familiar with cultural studies, or how many in the arts world see science, this is a great book to read because it is possible to read, and it makes clear just how big a hurdle we have to get over if the arts world is ever to get an idea of what science is about. In my experience it has usually been a one-way trade. Many science students have an interest in the arts - many scientists, for instance, are also excellent musicians - but hardly any arts students know anything about science (except that scientists, snigger, snigger, have lots of lectures and practicals, rather than one essay to write a week).

I hope that it's not impossible to bridge the gap - and though this book isn't the one to make the bridge, it at least might help us understand just what a large ravine we have to cross.

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Reviewed by Martin O'Brien

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Last update 05 June 2007