Creativity in Science and Art

Why is it that with an artist we expect that there will be a development? For instance, take the case of Wagner: until he was forty, until Lohengrin, he was still tending to write operas in the old style, that is to say with set pieces. In his forties he began with the Rheingold, the first part of the famous Ring cycle, to write something on completely different lines. He’d worked out his new theories in the prose works, opera and drama and others, and he began to write a continuous stream of music in which the orchestra played as important a part as the voice. With Beethoven we can recognise the first period, the second period and the third period, and we rate the third period as of the highest inspiration. But very often in the history of science it seems to be the reverse; the man does his very best work in his twenties and after that he never rivals his own success. Why is this?

In 1935 at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain, a young Indian scientist, twenty-four years old, presented a paper on what happens after a star has burnt up all its fuel. According to the prevailing theory of the time the cooling star would collapse under force of its own gravity into a dense ball called a white dwarf. The star that was the mass of the sun for instance would shrink to the size of the earth, at which point it would reach equilibrium. Chandrasekhar studied what happen in a case of a large star, a star beyond what is now called the Chandrasekhar Limit, 1.4-times as massive as the sun. Then the star would go on collapsing, getting smaller and smaller, and it would not remain or pass into the white dwarf stage.

Arthur Eddington, then by general acclaim the greatest astronomer of the day aged 52,  attacked and tore apart Chandrasekhar’s paper. He made a lot of jokes. He couldn’t quarrel with the logic or the calculations, but he claimed that the whole theory had to be wrong simply because it led to an inevitable and outlandish conclusion. Eddington said a star has to go on radiating and radiating and contracting and contracting until it gets down to a few kilometres’ radius, when gravity becomes strong enough to hold in the radiation and the star can at last find peace.

Today, of course ,we should call such an object a black hole, but Eddington said it couldn’t possibly exist. A reductio-ad-absurdam he called it. Eddington said ‘I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way’. Eddington went on and said he couldn’t attack the mathematics of it. If one takes the mathematical derivation of the relativistic degeneracy formula as given in astronomical papers, he said, no fault is to be found.

But, he said, this is an absurdity. Various accidents may intervene to save the star, but I want more protection than that. I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way. Well, this is rather extraordinary. Why does he want protection? This must mean he had some deep-seated aversion to such a possibility. So he said ‘One’s got to look into the physical foundations of the mathematics. These are not above suspicion. The formula,’ said Eddington, ‘is based on a combination of the relativity mechanics and non-relativity quantum theory, and I do not regard the offspring of such a union as born in lawful wedlock.’ Everybody burst out laughing again. And so Chandrasekhar’s theory was undermined,  he didn’t get a job and his career in this country was finished. He went on to make a successful career in other fields, but came back later on at the very end to the black hole theory in America thirty years later.

Now why did Eddington do this? Chandrasekhar, at the end of his life, was asked about this, and he said ‘It’s very difficult to know why how many – there have been so many young men who might have been famous and successful in science. Very few have survived for long periods of time. Not many. Even the very great men of the 1920s who made the quantum mechanics, I mean Dirac, Heisenberg, Fowler, they never equalled themselves. Look at Maxwell. Look at Einstein.’ He says ‘I’m not trying to criticise the scientists, but it’s the problem in the abstract.

At the age of forty-seven Beethoven told a friend, ‘Now I know how to compose.’

There’s never been a forty-seven-year-old scientist who announced ‘Now I know how to do research’. The artist’s ability is – there’s a growth. We assume that there will be, and there is, a growth from the early period to the middle period of mature work, and the end; the artist’s ability is refined. He’s able to tackle more difficult problems. Why is a scientist unable to refine his mind?

Einstein was one of the great scientific minds. He discovered special relativity and a number of other things in 1905. He worked terribly hard and did the general theory of relativity in 1916. Then he did some fairly important work until the early 1920s. From that point he detached himself from the progress of science, became a critic of the quantum theory and effectively did not add to science or to his own enlargement. There’s nothing in Einstein’s work after the age of forty which shows that he attained a greater intellectual perception than what he had before. Why? For lack of a better word, there seems to be a certain arrogance towards nature which people develop. These people have had great insights and made profound discoveries. They imagine afterwards that the fact that they succeeded so triumphantly in one area means they have a special way of looking at science which must therefore be right. But science doesn’t permit that. Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend, the most powerful minds.

Eddington. said there must be a law of nature to prevent a star from becoming a black hole. Why should he say that? Just because he thought it was bad? Why does he assume he has a way of deciding what the laws of nature should be? Similarly this oft-quoted statement of Einstein, disapproving of the quantum theory.

Einstein said ‘God does not play dice’. How does he know?

One reason may be that the artist has the conviction of divine inspiration. There’s the convention by which the artist’s work is inspired by the muse, who is a divinity, and many writers for instance, both of the top rank and of the second rank, had this vivid experience. Stevenson used to call it the brownies. Russell himself speaks of an experience when after struggling with the possible plan of a new book, he couldn’t get anywhere, and then he abandoned thinking about it for a time and went for a long walk, and when he came into the house, suddenly the whole outline of the book was clear before him.

Our western psychology has no account of these sudden inspirations, and the progress of science has often been entirely dependent on them, but they are not acknowledged in science. Henri Becquerel was studying fluorescence and he was aware that the x-rays had just been discovered. They were in the Crookes tube when the glass at the end of the tube fluoresced, became luminous. The x-rays were produced, and it occurred to him to wonder whether things like uranium, which become fluorescent in the sunlight, also emitted x-rays, so he prepared some trays of uranium and then on it he put a key and then a photographic film wrapped up of course. Then he prepared to put these in the sunlight, and we know that on October 26th 1986 the sky was clouded over, there was no sun at all in that part of France, and he gave up the attempt and he put the uranium tray with the film still taped on to it in a drawer. There couldn’t be anything on it, he was going to (gap on turning tape over) and to his amazement there was the outline of the key on it. This was the discovery of radio-activity. Medawar calls this a lucky chance and quotes Pasteur ‘Chance favours the prepared mind. It’s true that without Becquerel’s scientific training he couldn’t have interpreted the result.

He wouldn’t indeed have made the experiment in the first place, but the point is, what was the irrational, totally unreasonable impulse that made him decide to develop that film on which, according to his own training in the whole science of the day, there couldn’t be anything? This is what in the east they call a direct inspiration from the cosmic mind, but our science has no account of this, and in the report by Becquerel this point is not mentioned; and this is probably why the artist who has always traditionally recognised the importance of divine inspiration remains modest and remains able to accept this inspiration as it changes his whole work as Wagner’s music completely changed, and Beethoven’s music changed.

They were able to accept this. They had a certain modesty, but in the scientific world it tends to be that as Chandrasekhar says, the scientist tends to think that it’s his own insight. He begins to forget many of these accidents and he attributes and arrogates to himself the discoveries, and that means he’s no longer open, or no longer so open to the possibility of inspiration.

Dr Shastri’s account of inspiration is a concentration for a long time on a particular point or problem, perhaps one some form of musical or artistic inspiration in the abstract, and then a purification of the mind, there has to be a modesty and a reverence, there has to be a freedom, a relative freedom, and isolation from disturbing practice. Then the mind, he says, becomes luminous. He quotes Patanjali that when there is skill in the concentration so that the will can go into it at a single stretch, then suddenly there is a quietening in the mind, the whole is an internal quietening, adhyatma prasad. And then he says the mind is evaporated, is vaporised, becomes nothing, and then from that, out of that nothingness, forces go into operation which are unknown and then there is a struggle for the cosmic mind to express itself through that individual mind, and that struggle is called inspiration. And we can say, well, but the fact is that scientific inspirations only come to scientists. For instance, the inspiration of gravity which came to Newton in the 1770s, that doesn’t come to other people.

That isn’t so.

Shankara, a thousand years before Newton, writes, and he mentions it twice in his great commentaries. ‘The god of the earth pulls objects towards it with just the right amount of force. If the pull were stronger men would fall flat on the ground, and if there were no pull, if he did not pull, things would float away into the sky.’

This insight, this is quite an unnatural one. People feel that things fall because they’re heavy, the thing moves, and so the impulse to move must be in the thing. The object moves. The great astronomer Copernicus, for instance, who died shortly before Shakespeare was born, believed that objects, being parts of the earth, naturally moved to unite with the whole. No one thought the earth could pull. How could it pull across empty space? Newton’s theory was criticised strongly for invoking occult forces. Galileo, the greatest scientist of his age, died in 1642. Now for instance that was long after Shakespeare’s death. He certainly never believed in anything like gravitational attraction, and it was only in 1676 that Newton proved that the earth attracts objects to its centre. And yet already in 1600, over seventy years before, Shakespeare somehow knew that the earth pulls everything towards its centre. In his play Troilus and Cressida there are the lines:

Time, force and death, do to this body what extremes you can
But the strong base and building of my love
Is as the very centre of the earth
Drawing all things to it.

How did Shakespeare know that? Is he speaking of the same thing? Shakespeare took it as an example of love, and he had the insight of the cohesive force in the universe, his love. With Newton it is seen as an exact mathematical form, but Shankara’s insight goes deeper still. He points out that the pull is just the right amount of force for human life. If the pull were stronger, he says, men would fall flat on the ground.

If the god did not pull, things would float away into the sky, and in Shankara’s vision this is controlled and regulated by a cosmic intelligence for the purpose of human experience, of providing a theatre for human experience, and this is our response to what’s called now the anthropic principle, which was first put forward in organised form in a very influential article in ‘Nature’ three years ago, in which it was pointed out that many of the constants of nature are rather delicately adjusted so that human life is possible. For instance, if gravity were a little bit weaker, all the stars would be red dwarfs. If gravity were a little bit stronger all the stars would be blue giants. In either case life would be impossible.

In his book ‘The Creation’, P.W. Atkins, who was the Lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of Oxford, remarked ‘Currently the universe is alive. Its life, its activity in all its forms, is permitted by the balance of the strength of the forces that govern motion, that constitute atoms, and that bind atoms into galaxies and elephants.’ These are the deepest forces of all, the forces that bind together the quarks; there is gravitation, the electric force which weakly binds electrons to nuclei and forms atoms. There are the strong forces and the weak forces, the forces that operate between the elementary particles, the balance of the strength of these forces is crucial to the emergence of conscious life. If the nuclei were bound together more weakly or slightly more strongly, the universe would lack a chemistry, and life, apparently biology but truly physics in the form of chemistry, would be absent. If the electric force were slightly stronger than it is, evolution would not reach organisms before the sun went out. If it were only slightly less, stars would not have planets and life would be unknown. That such a universe as ours did emerge with exactly the right blend of forces may have the flavour of a miracle and therefore seem to require some form of intervention; but nothing intrinsically lacks an explanation. We cannot yet see quite far enough to decide which is the right explanation but we can be confident intervention is not necessary. Chance may have resulted in a benevolent job lot of strengths of forces. Could chance acting alone have been so fortunate? Chance might have stumbled on fortune. But it might be chance that has given the forces their strength. We are the beneficiaries. He takes the view that there therefore is no creator because it’s not necessary to postulate one, if the results could come about by chance, however remote. He says that it’s unscientific to bring in a creating intelligence, a guiding intelligence, if chance would account for it. It’s unscientific to do so’.

But that isn’t so. It’s possibly an imaginary story, but it’s said that in Chinese history the Emperor decided to help the finances of the state by holding an enormous lottery over the whole nation. The Chinese are a nation of gamblers, and he thought they would support it. So he told them that the first prize would be enormous, there’d only be one prize but it would be enormous, and it would be half the contributions, and the Emperor began, and set the lottery off by a very large contribution of his own, and sure enough all the wealthy and even the poor all subscribed something in the hope of getting this enormous first prize. When the final drawing took place in the Hall of Justice it was announced that the sublime Emperor had been fortunate enough to win the prize. Now that could have happened by chance. According to Peter Atkins it would be unscientific to suppose any other, any intelligent intervention, because it could have happened by chance. But we can see that it’s not unscientific at all to suppose that there could have been an intervention.

Now remarks that it’s unscientific if chance could have done it; to suppose conscious intelligent intervention. But that’s one of these rather pompous remarks that scientists tend to make, as Chandrasekhar, himself an eminent scientist, has pointed out. Supposing we play cards with someone, and every time he deals, he himself gets the best hand in the game. Now that could happen by chance. It could happen by chance. But it’s not unscientific if we consider the possibility that it’s happening by his secretly manipulating the cards. Again and again he gets the best hand. It could happen by chance. But it’s not unscientific to think otherwise.

The poet Gray in 1750 in his Elegy in a Country Churchyard has this verse:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There’s an old verse quoted by on page 183 of the First Zen Reader, there’s an old song:

Not for the sake of a beholder
In the deep mountains blossoms the cherry
Out of the sincerity of its heart.

© Trevor Leggett

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