When I was in a gallery in Edinburgh in 1997, I saw some artworks that changed the way I thought about foundational issues in information theory and redirected my research efforts. The personal essay “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” about this is in the October 2018 issue of SciArt Magazine.
The full text of the article is reproduced below.
We tell ourselves a lot of stories. Here’s one I’ve been telling myself for many years now.
I was in Edinburgh in 1997 to do some shows at the Edinburgh International Science Festival but spending as much time as I could going to the science book talk series. One particular talk was held in Fruitmarket Gallery on Main St. I recall the speaker was John D. Barrow, and the event was connected to the recent paperback release of his book “The Artful Universe.” The topic, on connections between art and science, seemed like something I would have been interested in, and something suitable for the Fruitmarket.
I arrived just in time for the talk and ended up with a seat in the back row on the far right hand side, just in front of a sculpture. I hadn’t had a chance to really spend any time with it, but I kept looking back over my shoulder at it as the talk went on. It was a human-scale wooden tetrahedron, burned to charcoal on one of the vertices.
My trip to Edinburgh was part of a science communication fellowship, an interlude in my PhD studies in theoretical physics. Between undergrad and graduate work, I’d done a performance-based grad program in science communication, which bolstered my interest in science communication and led to the fellowship.
Back in Australia, I had been working on the theory of Bose-Einstein condensation, a topic that had heated up, so to speak, after the development of laser cooling led to the first observation of the condensates in alkali gases – the coldest stuff in the universe! I wrote my first-ever lead news story in the main newspaper science section in Australia about it. However, academic interest in the topic was overwhelming for a young grad student. If I recall correctly, there were about a thousand papers published on the topic that year and two Nobel Prizes in Physics came from that flurry of activity. I certainly couldn’t keep up.
In Edinburgh, however, with some separation from my research, my mind had been spinning on a different research topic, that of quantum information theory, which was starting to get more attention with some interesting recent results. When Barrow said the phrase “symmetry breaking” during his book talk, my mind kicked into some weird state. I recall feeling a little manic, to be honest, and couldn’t quite concentrate on the other things he was talking about.
The mental jolt caused me to look back at the work of art behind me again. The work posed a meta-question for me – I was looking for meaning, and although I didn’t necessarily find it in the work, I started to dwell on how it could have created meaning for me. Primed to think in terms of information theory, conveying meaning indicated that the work carried information. Primed by the phrase “symmetry breaking,” the work’s structure stood out to me.
The answer was suddenly clear. The work carried information and conveyed meaning precisely because the regular geometric symmetry of the sculpture was broken. Only one vertex was charred. This tetrahedron could tell me something, through its asymmetric orientation, that an unburned tetrahedron could not. I didn’t know what it told me, but that wasn’t the point.
Was this how information was carried in a physical system? If a system changed the way it expressed symmetry did it change the amount of information it carried? It seemed to me that it must. I hadn’t read about this anywhere, but I was pretty new to thinking about this problem.
At the end of the talk, I asked the speaker a question, something about what was known about this relation between the breaking of symmetry and information, with reference to the art in the gallery. He replied with a rather condescending non-answer that was merely a description of symmetry breaking using the standard popular science trope. I probably would have let the whole thing go except that as I stood up after the question time had concluded four people converged on me from different parts of the room. “That was a really interesting question.” “He didn’t answer it at all, did he?” “That’s really making me think.”
During the 15-minute stroll along Leith Walk back to the spare room of the friend-of-a-friend I was crashing with, I thought more about the idea, and at the top of the fourth floor walk-up, I started scrawling notes in my trip journal. Over the next few months of the fellowship, I kept thinking about information and symmetry, with that work of art my foundational reference point, and continued to write about it.
I returned to Australia. A few months away from my old research meant hundreds more papers in the subject area, meanwhile I had a new bright and shiny topic that was grabbing my attention. I talked to my PhD supervisor about it, and whether I might change direction. He thought the idea was interesting but that it was a pretty ambitious. He said he wouldn’t normally advise a grad student to work on something like this, but that I should give it a go.
I dug deep into the mathematics, I built the relevant mathematical structures. I wrote theorems and propositions and corollaries and proofs for them and presented the work in seminars. My research direction had changed and now the coldest stuff in the universe left me, well, cold.
After about a year, I dropped out of the PhD program. The department had undergone major upheaval, and there was infighting among the graduate students, reflecting the tensions among faculty. One day I came to my desk in the grad student office and found all my research notes purposely destroyed – without proof of who did it and despite a departmental inquiry into the matter, not much could be done. Nothing could bring back my research notes and calculations.
That was more than 20 years ago now. I haven’t stopped working on that research, and I have made progress over the years. I keep up with the literature and there are hints of other people working on similar ideas, but nobody had published what I had been working on, as far as I can tell. I haven’t published it either. My art research, as part of a practice-led PhD in Australia, and lecturing in an art school, fills my focus now and I am happy with every minute of it. Maybe I’ll publish the physics one day.
My research, now, is about the nature of art and science collaboration, and one of my ongoing interests has been the question of whether the creative arts can substantively influence the sciences. What is it about the creative arts that is peculiar to the creative arts, that could influence science? Lots of scientists talk about how the arts influence their work, but when I talk to them about it and look for evidence, and try to understand how that influence actually happens, it almost always reduces to the scientists feeling warm and fuzzy feelings for engaging with the arts.
This is the story I’ve been telling myself. I have a gut feeling that the arts influenced my science and pushed me into a new line of research, thinking things that I probably wouldn’t have thought otherwise. But I don’t really know, and actual evidence for whether the arts substantively influence the sciences, is scant. A 2012 SEAD white paper stated, “Few if any demonstrated cases exist which prove that Art-Science projects, extended now as SEAD projects, have or can contribute to the advancement of science.” It would be nice if that weren’t true but we can’t wish it into being. We can try though.
I don’t remember the artist or the title of the work that drove me through the process, though it’s probably by a significant or even famous contemporary artist if it were in that gallery. I’ve been trying to track it down for 20 years now so if you know, please tell me. And then I can see if I need to re-write this whole story closer to the truth.