Science in Society Archive

Beauty and Truth in Science and Art

Preface to Celebrating I-SIS, Quantum Jazz Biology, Medicine, Art

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

The quest for beauty is what motivates scientists, especially the greatest scientists. The beauty of a scientific theory can arouse such passion that some scientists are relatively unconcerned as to whether the theory happens to be true. Fortunately, really beautiful theories tend also to be true, in the sense that their predictions can be tested and confirmed empirically. That is what Indian-born American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), recipient of the 1983 Nobel Prize for his work on the evolution of stars, argued convincingly in his book Truth and Beauty, Aesthetics and Motivation in Science published 1987 [1].

Henri Poincare (1854-1912), French mathematician-physicist and the Last Universalist excelling in all fields of mathematics in his time, once wrote: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living [emphasis added]….I mean the ultimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.”

I add emphasis to “life would not be worth living” at the end of the sentence. The greatest gift a person can have is the capacity to be inspired by beauty; it is the fount, if not the raison d’etre of all creation. To be inspiring, one must have the capacity to be inspired.

Poincare referred to ultimate beauty as “the harmonious order of its parts [to the whole]”, the scientist, he went on to say, delights in both the “vastness” and “prodigious smallness” of things. These are domains that transcend mundane experience.

JWN Sullivan (1886-1937), London-born journalist and biographer of Newton and Beethoven among others, went further: “The measure of success of a scientific theory is, in fact, a measure of its aesthetic value…The measure in which science falls short of art is the measure in which it is incomplete as science.”

In response, artist and art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) observed that there is no reason why a beautiful scientific theory has to “agree with facts”. Like Poincare, who posited “pleasure” in the beauty of nature as the motivation for science, Fry laid great store by “emotional pleasure” in the pursuit of art. But is it the same “pleasure” in both cases? Fry pointed out that in art, the emotional pleasure comes from “the recognition of relations” that is “immediate and sensational”, and “curiously akin to those cases of mathematical geniuses who have immediate intuition of relations which it is beyond their powers to prove.”

A famous case was the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), who inspired the recently produced multi-award winning play A Disappearing Number by Théâtre de Complicité and British playwright Simon McBurney [2]. It is the most beautiful play I have seen in the past ten years. Ramanujan left a large number of notebooks that recorded several hundred formulae and identities; many were proven decades after his death by methods that Ramanujan could not have known.

British mathematician GN Watson (1886-1965) spent several years proving Ramanujan’s identities, and vividly described how coming across those identities gave him “a thrill” indistinguishable from that which he felt on seeing Michaelangelo’s sculptures “Day”, “Night”, “Evening”, and “Dawn” over the Medici tombs in Florence, Italy.

Similarly, German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg recalled his extreme elation on discovering the laws of quantum mechanics: “I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.” In his conversation with Albert Einstein afterwards, he recorded: “If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great simplicity and beauty – by forms I am referring to coherent systems of hypotheses, axioms, etc. – to forms that no one has previously encountered, we cannot help thinking that they are “true”, that they reveal a genuine feature of nature.”

Heisenberg was anticipated by English romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821):

Beauty is truth,
truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know.

Beauty lost

Sadly, both science and art have strayed away from the quest for beauty (and truth), having been overtaken by the profit imperative and the quest for wealth. One commentator remarks [3]: “A century ago, beauty was almost unanimously considered the supreme purpose of art and even synonymous with artistic excellence. Yet today beauty has come to be viewed as an aesthetic crime. Artists are now chastised by critics if their works seem to aim at beauty.”

But the pendulum is swinging back. Since the early 1990s there has been a rising chorus to bring beauty back to art [4-7], if not to science.

Of course, there is still no end of apologists who will tell us that the concept of beauty changes through the ages, and what was thought ugly when first perceived, such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal, is now revered as high art. And there are those who claim that beauty is culture-bound, and what is beautiful in one culture is abomination in another.

Recovering beauty

And yet, beneath it all, we know that beauty is timeless and universal. Witness that collective sharp intake of breath when successive prehistoric cave paintings were unveiled to the world, the most recent spectacle in the Chauvet cave of Ardeche, France, dating from 30 000 BC [8]. Or marvel at the creative transgressions of cultural/ethnic/genre boundaries in contemporary music and art, albeit mostly away from the mainstream. You will be experiencing a selection of these in the art exhibitions, both actual and virtual, during our truly avant garde Celebrating I-SIS event, Quantum Jazz Biology, Medicine, and Art, 26-27 March 2011, to be held in Alara Wholefoods factory, King’s Cross, London, the purpose of which is to unite the ‘two worlds’ of science and art and restore beauty (and truth) to both.

The year 2011 also happens to be the 12th year of ISIS, the Institute of Science in Society, co-founded by myself and Peter Saunders, with a mission to reclaim science for the public good by providing accessible and critical scientific information to the public, by insisting on sustainability and accountability in science, and especially, promoting holistic organic science in place of the mechanistic. Holistic science is ultimately a way of knowing and understanding that engages all our faculties, both rational and aesthetic, and hence recognizes no separation between science and art.

It is true that traditional concepts of harmony and elegance are static and mechanical, and totally inadequate to encompass the protean, shimmering splendour of nature’s organic beauty, as contemporary scientists and artists who have the requisite capacity to be inspired will tell you.

In science, the static harmony of the ‘golden mean’ has blossomed into the mathematics of fractals, chaos, and strange attractors, much closer to how nature expresses herself. Similarly, the mechanical uniformity we have mistaken for natural order has given way to dynamic coherence, of which the most sublime is quantum coherence, as you will encounter in the event, which is based around the main theme of ‘quantum jazz’, my metaphor for the quantum coherence of living organisms.

When I first proposed that the organism is quantum coherent in the early 1990s, only a handful of exceptional scientists thought quantum theory had anything to do with biology at all. The situation has greatly changed since then. Google has just run a workshop on quantum biology [9], where various speakers spoke about quantum coherence at the micron scale for photosynthesis and collapse of the quantum wave function as the basis of consciousness and quantum computing in our brain. Obviously, they have yet to catch up with the evidence suggesting (to me at least) that the organism is completely quantum coherent.

Beauty in science and art comes in endlessly diverse forms, surprising and unpredictable, and always sublime in arousing that giddy “thrill” that I can only describe as an all-encompassing ecstasy of love, not just directed at the particular object of beauty, but permeating the universe at large. And I venture to suggest, the same “truth” or authenticity underlies beauty in art as in science, in that it resonates with some universal, timeless aspects of nature to which we are connected, and in which we are utterly immersed [10] (In Search of the Sublime, SiS 39).

To recover beauty and truth in science and art - and make life worth living - is indeed our project, which we are formally launching with the Celebrating I-SIS event. I have to thank, first of all, the artists who have inspired the event. For although we have placed considerable emphasis on art right from the beginning - the most visible sign being the excellent artworks featured in our trend-setting quarterly magazine Science in Society – we would never have attempted such a bold science/art venture had it not been for the extraordinary artists who made it compulsory.

The artists

Li Poon, my brother in Toronto, Canada, has been resident artist of I-SIS since the beginning. His works have appeared so frequently on and inside the covers of Science in Society that they have become the magazine’s identifying hallmark. He came to see us in London in April 2010, and at my request, showed me how he paints. We painted at opposite ends of the conservatory table, in the glorious daylight of the English spring, suffused with the heady perfumes and colours of flowers against the backdrop of endless shades of green, and to the frequent accompaniment of exquisite birdsong. For months afterwards, long after Li has returned to Toronto, I painted every day, learning to work with water and pigments towards that ideal of quantum jazz - a free and spontaneous improvisation that keeps in step and in tune with the whole -without ever quite reaching it, however.

Li has been a constant source of inspiration. He is the most prolific and protean painter I have come across. He has worked in numerous styles and media over a period of 40 years, starting with a bold transformation of traditional Chinese painting, through to a unique Chinese, European and meso-American fusion, and beyond.

At about that time, Michel Kappeli from Switzerland and Julian Voss-Andreae from USA made contact independently in response to my writings on quantum jazz and the role of ‘liquid crystalline’ water in the quantum coherence of living organisms. We exchanged several e-mails on science and art and discovered much common ground. Most of all, they bowled me over with their amazing works of art that relate to science.

Julian’s elegant quantum sculptures manage to articulate aspects of quantum reality beyond the reach of scientific discourse, giving us a deeper understanding of quantum theory. This is further enhanced by his simple, stylish presentation, which you will enjoy reading in full in this commemorative volume. No wonder his works have been widely commissioned in large scale for public institutions, and he has been featured in the top scientific journals, Nature and Science (which I discovered only after I have invited him to participate in our event).

Michel struck a chord through his innovative experiments in getting water to speak to us in stunning structural symphonies reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach’s preludes, leaving us in little doubt that water could be coherent, if not quantum coherent. Michel has won numerous awards and public commissions, which again, I only discovered after having invited him to celebrate I-SIS with us and he sent his biography.

But before I invited Julian and Michel, I decided to include music; and well-known ‘sonic-poet’ composer and professor of music Edward Cowie came to mind. I met him years ago at Dartington College, UK, where I was invited to talk on the quantum coherence of organisms, and he had the unenviable task of introducing me. At the end of my talk, he gave a wonderful impromptu improvisation on piano of the Rainbow Worm [11] (The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, I-SIS Publication) for which, to this day, I regret at having failed to show my true appreciation. Imagine my delight when I tracked him down via Google, and with great trepidation, asked if he would consider performing for us, and he promptly replied and said yes! Not only that, I discovered that he and his wife Heather are both internationally renowned artists, and would also contribute to our art exhibition.

Edward’s detailed coloured drawings are most unusual, they are “primers and maps” that guide him, via the living world to his music, his “living world of sound”, while his musical compositions are complex, polychrome, and vast constructions you can see so vividly in your mind’s eye, you feel you can almost touch them as the music is being performed. Edward offers us rapturous inter-sensual feasts. Prepare for a real treat, he is performing live, and improvising at the event.

Heather Cowie works in different media and dimensions, but with a central uniting theme. The detailed subtle textural variations composed of twigs, leaf segments, and flow of pigments, are reminiscent of natural processes and rhythms that repeat, only not quite; they are like trance-inducing music that brings you in touch with the tapestry of life itself, a tapestry woven of myriad threads reaching back, back, through geological ages that are nevertheless ever present in the now. Heather’s sculptures on morphogenesis invite us to experience the process of development through successive accretion of layers that are concealed, but again, ever-present in the whole that confronts us. She transports us through the many entangled dimensions of organic space-time as we grow and evolve interweaving narratives, from grains of sand, twigs, and fragments of leaves, to vast geological formations.

The participation of the artists I have just described was decisive in committing us to the event, a commitment when viewed in the cold light of day, was nothing short of foolhardy, as none of us at I-SIS has had any experience of such an event, and least of all, running it in a wholefoods factory over a weekend, which I am sure, no one has ever attempted. But the fact that it has never been done was all the more reason to go ahead. It would also give us the opportunity to feature other excellent artists who regularly contribute to Science in Society, and considerably increase the diversity of artistic forms that’s an essential attribute of organic beauty.

Kathy Haffegee in Milton Keynes UK, draws inspiration from nature to make fantastic, inventive embroideries in textiles that have an immediate intuitive appeal.

Matt Poon, my brother in Sydney, Australia, only started painting seriously in the past five years, but has already exhibited widely, winning several awards for his water colours that have that rare poetic quality one finds in the best contemporary Japanese water colours. But his latest works are a fantastic departure; he is on his way to painting like he does Tai Chi, as is his current ambition.

Last but not least, I love the works of my granddaughters Jasmine and Jade Ho, of course I would; but most of all because of their spontaneity that many artists would readily die for.

The scientists and others

It’s been more than 20 years since I first decided to leave biochemical and molecular genetics to create the new discipline of ‘the physics of organisms’ [10]. I was conscious of reaching beyond conventional mechanistic science towards the organic, but not abandoning science. Nevertheless, I made many enemies in the scientific establishment, and of the rest, very few would defend me, or admit to having read, let alone cite my work. That left me very few friends. To make matters worse, I have little sympathy for the anti-science and relativistic rhetoric fashionable among certain sociologists, while the intellectually flabby discourse of most new age gurus leaves me in a state of mental indigestion.

Fortunately I was able to find soul mates among the few who have both the imagination and courage to go beyond their conventional science roots to recover beauty and truth without severing those roots.

Jim Oshman, cell biologist turned pioneer of energy medicine is foremost among them. He has applied his conventional knowledge to explaining why all forms of subtle energies can have therapeutic effects, as one would expect if the organism is quantum coherent. Jim and I have shared many platforms at international conferences, when I learn something new from him every time. So, when he said yes instantly to my invitation to speak at our event, I knew it would be a success, and you, like me, will be learning something new from his contribution.

Peter Fisher, another conventionally trained scientist (in medicine), had decided to venture into homeopathy in particular, and complementary medicine in general. Apart from being Homeopath to Her Majesty the Queen, Peter is playing a leading and successful role in defending homeopathy and complementary medicine against the establishment, as you will gather from his presentation that documents key empirical evidence, ranging from clinical success of homeopathy to physicochemical signatures of homeopathic preparations. I feel very privileged to have him as a speaker on the art and science of healing water, which rounds out the main theme of the event perfectly.

On this special occasion commemorating the12th year of ISIS, I would like to acknowledge Michael Meacher MP and Alan Simpson MP, who have been our constant friends and sponsors from the start, without, however, trying to involve us in party polities. We are greatly honoured to have Michael with us for the celebration, who has been most consistently the people’s favourite politician for his defence of the environment and social justice.

Alex Smith’s generous offer of Alara’s factory with the key attraction of an organic urban forest garden as our venue was an opportunity and challenge that we simply could not afford to turn away. Alex too, has been a supporter of I-SIS almost from the beginning, and it’s been a great pleasure to work with him. Alex is a leader in sustainable business. Celebrating I-SIS is as much Alara’s event as it is ISIS’.

Finally it remains for me to thank some special colleagues in ISIS.

Prof. Joe Cummins, Distinguished Fellow of ISIS, is a major contributor to ISIS’ scientific work, especially, though not exclusively in the areas of genetic modification and environmental pollution, for which he has been independently honoured. He is a great scientist as well as a fierce defender of the public good, and the public right to know. Joe is also a kind, gentle, and generous soul, and the best friend any person can hope for. He is certainly a friend of ISIS, but also a personal friend for me and my family. I consider myself the luckiest person in the world to have such a friend. We are fortunate to have him with us for the celebration.

Julian Haffegee has worked with me before I-SIS was conceived. He did his Master’s degree in my lab, and contributed a lot to the physics of organisms. Julian created ISIS’ website, and it has gone from strength to strength. Since 2009, it is archived by the British Library as part of UK documentary heritage. Julian also designs and produces Science in Society, making it the most attractive science magazine on earth. Julian’s talents do not end there; he plays the bass guitar for a band, and composes music. You will find his musical contributions in the virtual art exhibition DVD, Quantum Jazz Art.

Prof. Peter Saunders, co-founder and co-director of ISIS, my constant companion and traveller for close to 40 years in science and art, making it possible for me to do my work on the physics of organisms, is also almost the best husband a woman can have, as we share everything including practically all the chores, many involved in organising this event.

It’s been hard work putting the event together, but also an exhilarating learning adventure in science and art. We are sure you will enjoy it as much as we have.

Mae-Wan Ho
February 2010, London

Article first published 02/02/10

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There are 3 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Charles McEwan Comment left 3rd February 2011 07:07:13
Wonderful article. I read your ISIS emails whenever I receive them and find I agree with everything which confirms me in my belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth written on our hearts. We are so impoverished by our relativistic approach, fearful of words such as right or wrong but the idea of beauty tells us that there is a fundamental order and we damage ourselves and our world by denying this.

Rory Short Comment left 4th February 2011 04:04:26
Discovering ISIS, which I did some years ago, was like a wanderer stumbling upon an oasis in the midst of a desert which is what to me the conventional view, of the world, of nature, of life, of existence, is. Thank you Mae and Peter for being brave enough to found ISIS. As a South African I will not be physically at the celebration but I will be with you in spirit.

Paul H. Carr Comment left 4th February 2011 08:08:19
Many thanks for your comprehensive article with such beautiful insights. It resonates so well with my book "Beauty in Science and Spirit" summarized on my web page I am presently in the US and would love to be in London for you March event. However, I have a daughter in London whom I am encouraging to attend.