Tom McLeish, Department of Physics, University of York
The Poetry and Music of Science
Wednesday, September 29, 12 Noon, 2021
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This lecture will be recorded
Tom McLeish FRS, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York, also affiliated to the University’s Centre for Medieval Studies and the Humanities Research Centre. He has conceived and led several interdisciplinary research projects, and is a recognized UK expert on formulating and evaluating interdisciplinary research. He co-leads the Ordered Universe project, a large interdisciplinary re-examination of 13th century science. From 2008 to 2014 he served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and was from 2015-2020 Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. He is a brilliant, creative mind and has won many awards for his work and teaching. He is the author of two important books on science and religion: Faith and Wisdom in Science (2016); and The Poetry and Music of Science (2019).
In this address, Dr. McLeish suggests that the ‘Two Cultures’ division between the arts and the sciences is not the best classification of creative processes, for all creation calls on the power of the imagination within the constraints of form. The three modes of visual, textual and abstract imagination have woven the stories of the arts and sciences together, using different tools. As any scientist knows, the imagination is essential to the immense task of re-creating a shared model of nature from the scale of the cosmos, through biological complexity, to the smallest subatomic structures. McLeish draws on past testimony and personal accounts of scientists, artists, mathematicians, writers, and musicians to explore the commonalities and differences in creation. He offers close-up explorations of musical, literary, mathematical and scientific creation, illustrating how creativity contributes to what it means to be human, drawing on theological ideas of the purpose of creativity and the image of God.
“The Romantic era of nature-writing constitutes one of the great hopeful chapters of history, where imaginative writing and imaginative science seemed on the edge of becoming the warp and weft of a single cultural tapestry.” (175-6)
“We are meaning-seeking animals immersed in a world of the aleatory and contingent as well as the wonderful and sublime. Part of our desire to make sense of the world seems to find an outlet in its recreation, or at least in creation of models of it. An experiment becomes a window on the world, and a local habitation for it.” (T. McLeish, The Poetry and Music of Science, 188)
“The ability to bring something new and valuable into being is a wonder. At every turn we have found the process of creation to draw on the deepest human energies, most radical thought, and most powerful emotion. Hope, desire, cognition, vision, dreaming, craft, skill, expertise and passion are summoned in the task of conceiving and realizing our imagination. They weave a much more complex picture.” (T. McLeish, The Poetry and Music of Science, 301).
Four Stages of Creation: Ideation, Incubation, Illumination, Verification
“Art and science must both reassure and trouble, call on extension of both seeing and hearing, must both distance and immerse…. Art and science share the same three springs of imagination. The visual image offers perspective, insight, illumination. The written and spoken word bring the possibility of mimesis through the textual, the experimental, and the narrative form for the story of creativity itself. The wordless depths of number, the musical and mathematical draw on the ancient insights of the liberal arts at the limits of comprehension. These are the trinity of disciplines and of modes of creation that transport our present longings for a fruitful and a peaceful home in the world, toward a future in which we are less ignorant, wiser in our relationship, but no less caught up in the wonder of it.” (T. McLeish, The Poetry and Music of Science, 336, 339)
“Science becomes a moral and spiritual exercise in personal and corporate healing and flourishing…. The embedding of the scientific imagination within a much larger narrative of human advancement towards the divine constitutes a modern echo of the narrative described by Anselm and Grosseteste in their own times, but emerging within the new experimental programme of enlightenment science.” (T. McLeish, The Poetry and Music of Science, 269 and 276)
-The Creation Narrative: we begin with a blurry vision of something–>desire to respond–>series of attempts to create–>encounter with constraint–>the final answer/idea emerges from the subconscious.
-Tom sparks memory of Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge.
-Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
-see Mary Midgley’s Science and Poetry, a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ reductionism.
-beauty is what the human mind responds to at its deepest place.
-Malcolm Guite: “Science and poetry are sisters.”
-Goethe: “Science and poetry come from the same cradle.”
-Three creative mode commonalities across the disciplines: Visual, Textual, Abstract
Comparing Creativity in Science and Art
- Challenges the obvious assumption that science is less creative than art and illustrates the contrary (contra C.P Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’)
- digging down to a foundational core of science and humanities
- Treats art and science on an equal footing and shows their interplay
- Shows the points of contact between science and music, literature and visual art
- Draws on historical and contemporary examples to provide a broader understanding
- Brings medieval philosophy and theology to bear on current questions of creativity
- Discusses the conscious and non-conscious mind involved in a breakthrough
- Reports on individual conversations with artists and scientists and provides personal perspectives on their personal creative processes
- Illustrates with rich and detailed examples such as a close reading of mathematics and music
- Offers a rich conversation within academia and beyond–a wellspring of issues for dialogue and reconciliation
Supported in part by the UBC William G. Murrin Fund
Co-sponsored with Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation