The Art and Science of Naming Things

We had a talk last night by Alan Lightman of MIT, a theoretical physicist and novelist, best known as the author of Einstein’s Dreams. He spoke for about an hour about his own background, and the similarities and differences between the worlds of science and the arts.

One of the differences he mentioned was the way the different disciplines handle names. He claimed that science is deeply concerned with naming things, because naming a thing in some sense defines it– the word “electron” carries with it a whole host of properties that are shared by all electrons in the universe. In the arts, on the other hand, names don’t have the same power, because the same word can mean different things in different contexts, and for different people. For that reason, he claimed, artists are not as keen to name things as scientists.

I found this particularly interesting, because just before the talk, I was looking at an exhibit of science-themed art and old scientific equipment. Included in the exhibit are a set of large prints of micrographs of patterns made by bacteria cultured in some sort of dirt. This included a little poem about the project, and a comment giving part of the credit for the work to “millions of microorganisms.” As I complained to a colleague, though, it does not include the species names of the microorganisms. It’s not like the Latin names would mean anything to me, but as a scientist, I expect them to be there, and was faintly annoyed that they weren’t.

He also talked a bit about the different approaches science and art have to the idea of questions. Science is concerned with questions that have definite answers, and if a question is too big to be answered immediately, we break it down into smaller, simpler questions that we do know how to answer. Art, on the other hand, is concerned with really big questions, and views the asking of the questions as more important than the answers.

Being a somewhat contrary sort, this immediately made me think about questions in science that are unanswerable, at least for the moment– particle physics at the Planck scale, or interpretations of quantum mechanics, and that sort of thing. I asked about this during the question period, and he gave more or less the answer you would expect– that a subject asking questions that cannot be connected to experimental tests at some point ceases to be science. He said that interpretations of QM are essentially philosophy, and mentioned string theory as an area of physics that’s becoming problematic.

Other areas he commented on were the way both science and art tend to seek beauty through simplicity, the way both involve creativity (he used the example of physicists finding clever ways to make complicated problems look like a mass on a spring, which ties in nicely to some things I said in class recently), the way both fields involve imagination under serious constraints. He gave a detailed description of the Joyce story “The Dead,” and used it to argue that fiction is as tightly constrained by what we know of human nature as physics is constrained by experimental data about the world.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking talk. I’m not sure I really buy his claim about names, despite unwittingly providing it empirical support, but it’s an interesting comment all the same. It was also a well-attended talk, with a good number of students in the audience, though I suspect many of them were required to attend (I saw a bunch of them taking notes), or being bribed to attend (I believe 12 of my 16 students turned up to claim the five-point bonus I offered on Thursday’s exam).