The Poetry and Music of Science: Interview with Tom McLeish

The Poetry and Music of Science: Interview with Tom McLeish


Tom McLeish is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the department of Physics at the University of York. He has a background in theoretical physics, and made his name through contributions to the understanding of soft matter and its properties. His recent work has zoomed out to focus on the humanistic aspects of science. His 2014 book, Faith and Wisdom in Science, examines the role of theology in scientific pursuits, and his latest work, The Poetry and Music of Science, which is the subject of this interview, tackles creativity and imagination in the sciences. In what follows, McLeish discusses his approach to the topic of scientific creativity and his reasons for setting out to write this book in the first place. He shares the story behind some of the examples he uses in the book and provides insight into his understanding of the historical sorting of human knowledge into distinct disciplines, and the utility and limitations of such sorting.

Your background is in Physics. How did you come to start thinking about the role of creativity in the scientific process and why do you think recognising this creativity is so important?

It really came from a collision of experiences. Over the years working as a scientist, collaborating with others both in my own teams and in other places over the world, I became really interested in where scientific ideas came from, and began to notice that the most interesting and influential ideas came from those people who dreamed up the most imaginative questions, and had the most radical way of perceiving how nature might be behaving (in my case in the world of complex molecules in fluids). The collision came with my experiences visiting high schools, which I love to do, to introduce pupils to the sorts of new thinking that is emerging in the subjects they are studying (I also do a ‘road show’ for schools on such perennials as science and faith). There I found that some of the brightest pupils who had chosen to drop science subjects had done so because they found in them ‘no place for my own creativity’, or ‘no imagination’. Yet I knew that without these things science cannot progress at all. I felt that the role of the creative imagination in science needed to be explored and spelled out. It also appealed to my longer project of re-envisioning the sciences as types of ‘humanities’ rather than an entirely different academic world.

Your previous book, Faith and Wisdom in Science, is also positioned between the humanities and the sciences. In both books, you are interrogating these boundaries between disciplines that we have come to view as almost natural separations. What is your understanding of how and when these different disciplines started to form?

I think now that the tendency to divide the disciplinary world goes back a very long way. Human beings like to categorise and file things – and up to a point that is helpful. It is when high barriers and mutual ‘othering’ of the communities that disciplines define starts that they become damaging. So the division of the ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ of late antiquity (Boethius) and the early universities of the European middle ages situated the ‘humanities’ disciplines in the ‘trivium’ of logic, rhetoric and grammar, and the mathematical disciplines in the ‘quadrivium’ of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. However, throughout those centuries of learning, any educated person would have mastered all of these. The current fragmentation of individual learning really set in very late – in the nineteenth century debates of curricula at school, and the rise of science in education.

Do you think these disciplinary distinctions have served us to some degree historically?

Well yes up to a point – to focus on a narrow field of knowledge with finite resources of time and material means that one can go further at a first pass. However, in order to be really creative in a single discipline requires the ability to see beyond its current confines: just the ability that is not delivered by a fragmented and focused education. Reading and thinking from other fields can reshape at a fundamental level the way one innovates in one’s own. One reason that Einstein was able to be so imaginative in his radical transformations of physics in the first decade of the twentieth century, for example (and he was always adamant that in science, imagination was more important than knowledge, calling himself more an ‘artist’), was that he read a lot of philosophy. Rutherford, when at the Cavendish laboratory, always preferred to hire bright students who had no formal training in physics to work with him for PhDs. To take another example, Tony Leggett, who won a physics Nobel prize for his radical work on the fractional quantum hall effect, read classics at Oxford as an undergraduate. One of the distinctive aspects of his work is the way he approached quantum mechanics – very different to how it is taught.

One of the things that emerges from The Poetry and Music of Science is the similarity between the creative process as it manifests in the arts and as it manifests in the sciences. Is this something you expected to find or did your understanding change during your research?

This was a surprise, but a delightful one. The book that I thought that I would be writing would contain a few chapters on accounts of scientific creativity, then some on artistic creativity, then finally a nice concluding essay chapter on a comparison. Not only would that have been terribly dull (or at least duller than the eventual book), but it proved impossible to write. The evidence and experience just didn’t fall out that way. Instead, as I talked with artists, writers, composers, poets, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, engineers, I heard commonalities that demanded discussion in other categories that all cut across the arts and sciences.

In the book, you present the idea that creativity exists in three different worlds: the visual, the textual, and the abstract. Could you explain what you mean by these different strands and discuss how thinking about creativity in this way highlights connections between the arts and sciences?

Yes – these were the ‘modes’ of creativity that I was hearing and reading about, rather than ‘artistic’ or ‘scientific’ modes. So, I was hearing both artists and physicists talking about visualising their work in the imagination before shaping it on paper. I was alerted to the long and fascinating story that entangles experimental method in science with the history of fictional writing (it was my colleague Patricia Waugh, professor of English at Durham, who pointed out to me early in the project that the coincident origin of experimental method and the early English novel was not a coincidence). Finally, I realised that even where there were no pictures, and even no words, there were still spaces for the creative imagination to go to work on the transcendent glories of music and mathematics. So that is the way it fell out for me. There are other ways of cutting the creativity cake – it turns out that there is a (small) community of philosophers thinking about creativity in other ways, for example, but no one divides it across arts and sciences, because there are just too many commonalities.

The main body of your book approaches these three strands of creativity through different pairings of scientists and artists. How did you go about selecting these pairings? Did you include any personal favourites?

Well I really just indulged myself – I mean if you are going to write about music of theoretical physics and need examples, you might as well choose your favourite composer or physics, or artist. For one thing I hoped that the writing would draw on some of that extra energy as a result. So Monet – and the luminous but less well known works he painted at Antibes — serves to illustrate how impressionism resonates with the way that a theoretical scientist has to ‘paint’ a picture of nature in the mind. When it comes to composers of course one sets Bach to one side as a one-off, and so many people have written about him. But that done, top of the rest is Robert Schumann whose music I find endlessly fascinating and satisfying – and wonderfully romantic. His glorious concerto piece for a quartet of horns and orchestra had never received a proper analysis, so it was a real privilege for me to work with the musicologist Julian Horton at Durham on that passage. The mathematical notion that I paired with that is a deep theorem that underpins my own research, and has as slow a history of dawning on its multiple realisers as the tonal journey has in resolving in the Schumann Konzertstück, so seemed a good example to explore.

This is a wide-ranging book drawing on a number of fields and taking in ideas from the ancient world to the modern day. One of my favourite examples of this is in your discussion of visual metaphor, which you explore through our changing understanding of optics. How important is this broad humanistic understanding to your work?

Oh very important. I hope to write more about this in future, but I have the notion that the choice of optics as the major science from the early middle ages within scientists of the Islamicate, through the high European medieval thinkers Grosseteste, Peckham and Bacon, was highly fortunate in many regards. One was, of course, its readiness to early scientific observation and rudimentary experiment, as well as its embodiment and realisation of Euclid’s geometry. So in one example we had the obvious role that mathematics plays in physics, and phenomena like the rainbow which hovered for centuries at just the right level of difficulty – very hard to understand but not impossible. That all came together in the first decade of the fourteenth century in the simultaneous discovery by al-Faragi of Baghdad and Dietrich of Freibourg of how the geometric optics of raindrops gave rise to the bow. But there is a deeper idea forming all the while here – for thinking about optics suggests other more general ways of thinking about nature. The images formed by lenses, for example, are imperfect little replicas of the world. That suggests that imperfect models of more general kinds might be efficacious in explaining nature. Incidentally, a by-product of all this is that there are strong reasons to reconnect the humanities discipline of the history of science back with science itself. A wonderful collaboration that I am involved with, the Ordered Universe project, is looking again at medieval science with an interdisciplinary team of scholars and scientists. As well as providing new insights into the radical and imaginative thinking of the early thirteenth century, the project has stimulated much new science – we have about ten new papers so far!

The book closes with a discussion of purpose, which draws on theological and philosophical ideas to think about the bigger picture surrounding science and creativity. How can mobilising these humanistic ideas prompt or complement discussions within/about the sciences?

I think that this is important in many ways. For one thing it is part of the message that I want to sing out loud that science is not for just geeky experts but like music, which anyone can approach and engage with critically without being a professional, has a role for everyone. I do think that the basket of activities that we now call science springs from the same source deep in our human nature from which music, art and literature also spring. Thinking about the human purpose for science (beyond the obvious instrumental ones) is a longer project that I began in Faith and Wisdom in Science and that I wanted to expand on here. Whether one approaches them from a confessional standpoint or not, theological narratives are powerful ways of articulating purpose and relationship. The relationship of humankind with the natural world is a vital one to keep healthy and mutually fruitful, yet it is in grave danger right now. Science has a clear part to play in navigating that relationship, but the connected web of knowledge and wisdom that comes when we talk across and between our disciplines will be essential in realising our potential to heal and not to hurt.

If readers could take only one thing away from your book, what would you like that to be?

That there are other ways of approaching ‘science’ from the way it is taught at school -science can be contemplative, beautiful, affective, even therapeutic, but also challenging and disruptive in just the same way that poetry, music and art can be. And that we need to find other ways of approaching it that open its doors to the creative imagination that all readers and listeners bring to art.

The Poetry and Music of Science: Interview with Tom McLeish
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Victoria Addis

VICTORIA ADDIS is the editor of AC Review of Books.

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