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The Divergence Of Art And Science


Here at 13.7, we have have spent considerable time thinking about art and science. In particular, we've often tried to unpack the meaning of their similarities.

We've explored the way abstract sculpture embodies experimental techniques common to both scientists and artists. We've looked at Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson for clues as to how artists and scientists see the world. We've even called on Beyoncé to help us understand what determines excellence in art and science.

So, it would seem, there is much in common between art and science, and there is much to be gained in specifying that similarity.

Except when they aren't similar.

Over the past few weeks, I have been running through Nikki Lane's new album All Or Nothing once a day or more. It's that good. Lane's style lives somewhere between country, rock, rock-a-billy and maybe a few other genres. Her voice has the strong edge of someone living hard without shame. The bad-girl memes on the album range from "it's always the right time to do the wrong thing" to "tonight it's a good night to sleep with a stranger." Taken as a whole, its classic outlaw Americana from a woman's perspective.

But, what strikes me most as I listen to these songs is how clever Lane (and producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys) have been in appropriating older styles, motifs and sonic metaphors. The song "Good Man" begins with a power pulse drumbeat taken straight from Ronnie Spector and the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (which also inspired Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood"). After a measure or two, Lane then takes the song in an entirely new direction.

In Lane's "I Don't Care," there are strong hints of "London Calling" by the Clash, which then morphs into a slightly Southern-fried version of April March's "Chick Habit" (from the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof). "All Or Nothing" recalls the best of Bonnie Raitt's music in the 1980s, while "Man Up" is a hilarious take on themes (in both music and lyrics) that Dolly Parton would be proud of.

What I have loved about Lane's album is the way all these influences appear for a moment as full-fledged ghosts, only to become something entirely new and purposeful for her own writing. Her riffs and her stories are compelling enough to come back to again and again, while savoring, each time, the effect of all the distinct influences.

But that direct take on older material got me thinking about what can happen in art that doesn't happen in science.

As a theoretical physicist, I am, of course, leaning heavily on the work of those who came before me. I wouldn't get very far without Newton, Einstein or thousands of other lesser-known scientists from decades ago who worked their way to results I now use every day in my own research.

But here is the crux of the biscuit. While I do use their results, I never purposely emulate their style.

Most people don't think about scientists as having a style, but we all do. We all have our idiosyncratic ways our reasoning (mathematical or otherwise) gets carried forward. That style comes out very clearly in our papers. It may be the way I formulate an equation, playing fast and loose with detail but intuiting my way to the right result. It may be that rigor is signature, making sure that every step is mathematically clean and appropriate.

So, I can see these styles and I do appreciate some more than others. But what I don't consciously do is go back and try directly recovering these styles. In fact, progress in science is such that, over time, the understanding of a particular result usually gets better than its original presentation. That means the original paper may be the worst place to attempt to fully understand a now time-honored equation or theory.

And yet, here is Nikki Lane clearly thinking: Hey, let's start with that beat from "Be My Baby"; or picking up on a Dolly theme as a beginning for something wonderfully new. Lane, and artists in general, are used to using older styles to build new ones. Scientists, on the other hand, use old results to build new ones. Styles seem not to matter.

So, as of today, I would argue the kind of appropriation Nikki Lane is mastering works powerfully in art but is rarely seen in science. Now, I could be wrong about this point — and I would be interested to see what folks think about this distinction. But if it's true, it would be interesting to ask how this specific difference may actually illuminate the similarities between art and science we have explored so many times before.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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