Arthur Miller: When art and science are shoulder to shoulder

From a lecture delivered at University College, London, by the professor of the history and philosophy of science
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The Independent Online

The 20th century's most important scientist, Albert Einstein, and its most important artist, Pablo Picasso, produced their greatest breakthroughs almost simultaneously. For Einstein, relativity theory in 1905, and for Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907. The following question comes to mind immediately: were they both responding to the Zeitgeist, or is any connection entirely serendipitous?

The first decade of the 20th century contained Einstein's and Picasso's most creative years. At that time, they were not the distinguished elderly figures that later became so familiar They were in their twenties, unknown, feisty, dirt-poor, and prone to getting into trouble. Their personal and creative beauty caused havoc.

They both responded to the tidal wave of the avant-garde. Einstein immersed himself in such key technological problems as the design of electric dynamos and the co-ordination of train schedules. Picasso's thinking included cutting-edge mathematics and science, in addition to technical aspects of photography and cinematography. These have been much neglected dimensions of Picasso's thinking.

There is a greater, unifying point. Einstein and Picasso both came of age at the exact moment when it was becoming apparent that classical, intuitive ways of understanding space and time were not adequate. In other words, they were both working on the same problem – the nature of space and time, and more particularly, simultaneity.

Between March and June 1905, Einstein moved to a new conceptual style, one based to some degree on aesthetics. At eight week intervals, he produced three papers that set the style and content of much of physics in the 20th century. The first one concerned the structure of light; the second would be a basis to prove that atoms actually exist and the third was the relativity paper.

Central to Einstein's reasoning in the relativity paper is a new notion of aesthetics he discovered. He had already tried it out in the one on light, where he noted the "profound formal distinction" that science makes between waves and particles – so why not have only one, in this case particles. Einstein used this minimalist aesthetic to great effect in work that is basic to his discovery of relativity theory. Einstein's discovery of new aesthetics required a high degree of abstraction, a move toward conception over perception.

In 1905, Picasso was also beginning to explore the world in terms of conception over perception and to seek new notions of what is aesthetic. Among the incidents that impelled him to focus on conception were the appearance of new-wave paintings by André Derain and his teacher, Henri Matisse.

Picasso's anxiety while working on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is akin to that experienced by research scientists on the cutting edge of their fields, where the problems they have posed for themselves may have no solutions whatsoever.

Artists are problem oriented, too. And artists like Picasso were willing to take chances. He lived at the epicentre of the debate about representation versus abstraction. New developments in technology, science and mathematics ultimately would make the difference.

To sum up, any work of art or science necessarily draws on many different, apparently unconnected areas. Such highly creative thinking may be likened to a mosaic of many tiles. In Picasso's and Einstein's cases, we have identified, among others: cinematography, geometry, technology, aesthetics, X-rays etc.

Both men were concerned with the same problem – simultaneity and spatial representation. Both concluded that the way you look at something, is the way it is. There is no one true perspective. They both went on to become icons of their age.