Why art matters to physics

When school budgets get slashed, one of the first things to go is art.  Art is seen as superfluous and not terribly practical.  But art teaches important skills that students don’t get elsewhere, some of which are important to physics and some of which are important to life in general.  One of the most important skills that art teaches is visualization and visualization is very important to physics.  From a pedagogical standpoint, when I teach introductory physics, I find that visualization is quite possibly the single most important pre-requisite skill required to succeed.  If a student is a bit lacking in their math skills, a few extra hours of outside help usually does the trick.  But if a student can’t visualize, nothing I do seems to help.  This is particularly evident when dealing with three-dimensional problems.  Students can sometimes visualize in two-dimensions, partly because they can draw things on paper (though getting them to do so can be like pulling teeth).  But they get completely lost in three-dimensions, sometimes even with visual aids.  I’m sure there are people who will take me to task for saying so, but I believe that some exposure to three-dimensional art forms (e.g. sculpture), particularly in a tactile manner and prior to taking physics, would help with this problem.

Art, when properly taught, also teaches things like metaphor and simile.  In art, things are often representative.  Being able to see these representations for what they are, i.e. interpret them, is a tremendously important skill.  Unfortunately, I think a lot of physicists actually lack this trait.  When a pure mathematician (geometer, U. of Arkansas professor, and host of The Math Factor Chaim Goodman-Strauss) bemoans the fact that mathematics has strayed too far into the abstract, theoretical physics can’t be that far behind.  Mind you, abstraction is important.  But physics, in particular, is – or should be – grounded in reality.  When it loses that grounding it becomes metaphysics.  Of course, when working in the microscopic realm, things can get a bit murky since mathematical constructs make up the bulk of quantum mechanics.  I use analogies quite a bit (some students can’t even bridge the gap between simple analogies – x is to y as z is to [fill in the blank]), but they don’t always work in the quantum world.  Nevertheless, the visual abstraction of art can help with this in some capacity.

Finally, art also helps people see the big picture and the interconnectedness of things.  It helps teach the mind a certain type of organization that I think is very important for working through complex physical problems.  And it helps people appreciate why simple, unifying principles are important.  This latter point is something I believe we are losing in physics.  Increasingly we – physicists – are looking at different regimes as separate.  From a pedagogical standpoint, this manifests itself in the way most people teach introductory physics, emphasizing Newton’s laws from an operational standpoint first before studying conservation laws.  These same people are often (though not always) the ones who later make blithe comments like “Einstein’s relativity proved Newtonian mechanics was wrong” (forgetting the fact that you can actually derive the latter from the former).

So, in short, art matters!  Embrace it, study it, actively loathe it (at least you’re engaging with it when you do!), but don’t dismiss it.

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One Response to “Why art matters to physics”

  1. Art is limitation; the essence of the picture is the frame.

    — Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”, Chap. 3

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