The Artist, a Neuroscientist?

An approach to the border between science and art

Chessboard with atoms of a gold surface. (Photo: From the author)
Chessboard with atoms of a gold surface. (Photo: From the author)

By: Augusto González, Dr. Sc.

Today’s article will be dedicated to exploring the border between science and art. Let’s put a concrete example from real life, so not to theorize too much.

A few years ago, scientists from the Institute of Materials from the University of Havana built a special microscope, called “tunnel effect”, which allowed us to visualize the atoms of a gold surface. From this “photograph”, using an image processor, we cut out a section of eight atoms long by eight wide and printed it in large size. That is, we created a chessboard, where the squares were gold atoms. We took it to an exhibition at the Hotel Habana Libre, placed on a table. Leinier Dominguez, the best Cuban chess player, signed the board and lent us a horse that he had won in an international competition.

In these times where art goes through a conceptual stage, the question has to be asked: is this a work of art? The authors of the photo are scientists. A chess player also participates, who also places his signature on the work. Its aim is to draw attention over the microworld, to motivate young people towards science. There is no artistic intention. Is it art then, or not?

This example illustrates that the boundaries of the areas of knowledge are, in general terms, not well defined. In particular, the border between art and science, two different ways of approaching reality, can be diffuse.

It is a fact that huge volumes of data are generated in many areas of science. The analysis of them is a very difficult task.

A few years ago a blind girl created an algorithm that transformed a sequence of numerical data into music. This algorithm allowed her to analyze large volumes of astronomical data, even without being able to see them, and detect anomalies in them. Note that in this case our natural ability to perceive and process music was used for scientific purposes.

Another case known for quite some time are the so-called “faces of Chernof”, where the ability of our brain to analyze human faces is used. Through numerical algorithms, multivariate information about a complex system, such as a company’s financial information, is translated into the characteristics of a face. So that just looking at the face we can infer whether the company has a healthy financial status or there are reasons to worry or is close to bankruptcy.

In an article of the prestigious journal Nature, it was launched the idea that artists are people with an extraordinary knowledge of the mechanisms with which our brain operates, that is, they could be described as “neuroscientists”.

The abilities of great writers to scrutinize human psychology, the skills of painters and sculptors to represent objects in 3D, to imagine the effects of light, etc. are recognized.

Message "Let's go to Faremido, all creatures" written in Sarus language. The first part with musical notes and the second with colors. The notes were grouped by the composer and orchestral director Roberto Valera. The representation of the colored molecule was obtained by Dr. Carlos Pérez from the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Havana using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance methods. (Photo: Augusto González, Dr. Sc.)
Message “Let’s go to Faremido, all creatures” written in Sarus language. The first part with musical notes and the second with colors. The notes were grouped by the composer and orchestral director Roberto Valera. The representation of the colored molecule was obtained by Dr. Carlos Pérez from the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Havana using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance methods. (Photo: Augusto González, Dr. Sc.)

About 100 years ago, a Hungarian writer wrote a science fiction novel entitled “Journey to FaReMiDo,” where metallic beings who looked like robots and knew the secrets of nature communicated among them in a language of musical notes. It was a strange (for the time) union of science, technique and music. Maybe what the writer imagined for the future of humanity.

The novel was written both in Hungarian and in Sarus, a language based on notes that was created at the same time as Braille and Esperanto. By the way, it was used by Spielberg in his film “Close Encounter”, to represent the communication of aliens with humans.

We use Sarus in another of the paintings of the famous exhibition at Habana Libre. Using notes we wrote “Let’s go to FaReMiDo”. The remarkable composer and orchestral director Roberto Varela joined these notes in the form of a composition. Next to it we colored a representation of a molecule, obtained trough Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. The color code said “All creatures.” That is to say, the full message was: “let’s go to FaReMiDo, all the creatures”. And we repeat the question with which we started the article: is this art, or not?

In summary, we have allowed ourselves to explore the frontiers between science and art through examples where these activities are intertwined. Perhaps in the future the interweaving will be even greater, the formation of people will be much more integral, more complete and the borders will vanish altogether.

Translated by ESTI

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