Categories: On the Beauty of Physics

Having admitted that I know noting about fine art, here’s an opportunity to prove it…

A week or so ago, I was in the Schenectady library looking for something else, and noticed a book called Categories: On the Beauty of Physics, which is packaged in such a way as to make it difficult to attribute, but appears to be the work of Emiliano Sefusatti, John Morse, and Hilary Thayer Hamann, a science writer, artist, and art expert, respectively. It’s subtitled “Essential Physics Concepts and their Companions in Art & Literature,” which sounded very Clifford Johnson, so I figured I’d give it a look.

The book takes 39 (why 39? who knows…) physics concepts, and illustrates each with a selection from literature, an original artwork by Morse, a reproduction of a classic work of art, and commentary on each of those. It’s an interesting concept for a book, and leafing through it in the library, showed some interesting stuff.

Sadly, the execution left something to be desired. At least for me, it did– I just won’t make it as the poor man’s Clifford Johnson…

The concept is good, don’t get me wrong, and the physics explanations are pretty reasonable. I might quibble with some of the words chosen as “essential concepts,” but most of them are reasonable.

The problem is that the connections between the physics terms and the selected works of art and literature often seem strained at best. For example, the section on “Friction” has a selection from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists talking about Michelangelo’s Pieta, and a Paul Gaugin painting (Vairumati) of a half-naked Tahitian woman. Those are obvious, right?

Well, OK, if you need an explanation… The relevance of the painting is that “The friction of this painting lies more in the position of forced humility in which he places the Western observer than in the voyeuristic tension between artist and model.” How could I have missed that?

The Michelangelo commentary is relevant to friction because “The vision of Michelangelo sanding the Pieta to idealized perfection is tremendously moving; especially considering that the by-product of that friction was the heat of the hands of a genius.” Which would be pretty reasonable, if the quoted passage talked about the sanding of the statue. Other than a single word in the first sentence (“It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill Michelangelo displayed”), friction is entirely absent from the passage.

This happens again and again through the book. “Power” is illustrated by Roger van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady, because she has a “powerful persona.” “Orbit” gets Mary Cassatt’s The Bath because it involves “the intimate orbit of mother and child.” And so on. The literary connections are often just as tenuous, involving a sort of punning.

This is probably intended to expand the mental universe beyond the merely literal, blah, blah, blah, but really, it feels like they had a list of paintings and sculptures they wanted to use (or could get permission to reproduce), and then matched them with physics words in a free-associative sort of way. It feels more like the result of a party game than a natural connection between different disciplines– “Here’s a Picasso and a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You have thirty seconds to explain why they’re really about force–go!”

I’ve learned, since my college days, that properly curated exhibitions really add a lot to the appreciation of works of art, putting the works in context and explaining some of the process of what’s going on. This book, unfortunately, is all too often a throw-back to the “art criticism is all a bullshit game” view that I had as a callow college sophomore.

So, in the end, this worked a lot better as a book to leaf through in the library than a book to read and be inspired by. Many of the pictures are terrific, and the original collages that Morse supplies for the individual words are both good and relevant. The words going with the fine art pictures, though, too often had the opposite effect from what was intended.

One thought on “Categories: On the Beauty of Physics

  1. It does seem illustrative of the idea that intellectuals aren’t expected to know much about science. If their idea of discussing physics is to throw in a bunch of physics words but use only their colloquial meanings, then that’s not very scientific. When I hear people using words like “force” and “power” and especially “frequency”, and pretending they’re talking science, I cringe.

Comments are closed.