8 DECEMBER 2005
"First you have a brain wave - next thing, it's crashing into an art gallery"
ON MONDAY evening, even as the art world's answer to Professor Pat Pending was named the new winner of the Turner Prize wacky race, the Science Museum was launching its latest project to link science and art. Even as Tate-goers were admiring the madcap musings of Simon Starling, the Dana Centre was introducing a new initiative called Big Ideas. This aims to open science up by taking a more arty approach. Nothing novel about that, you might think. Science and art have been linked at least since the days of Leonardo. H. G. Wells brought a sharp biologist 's eye to his all-too-believable fiction. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot apparently found the artist Frantisek Kupka had painted fractal geometries before he got around to writing about them.
But Big Ideas has a more unsettling message. Four artists, all adventurers into a grey interdisciplinary land, have been invited to come up with a concept that may challenge a few of our fundamental assumptions. The partnership London Fieldworks, for instance, is exploring the possibilities of converting brain waves into physical form. It is a technologically complicated and visually intriguing process that opens up ground-shattering possibilities.
If we can manufacture the images in our minds, could the unique be mass-produced for the first time? And how would that affect our long-held notions of genius or value? Could the scientists be stealing our souls? This is the sort of morass into which Big Ideas drops its participants. Scientists are not the sternly unimaginative creatures of cliché, it emphasises. The laboratory boffin, like any other creative thinker, has personal values and judgments and hunches and is quite capable of being pretty silly.
Serious scientific involvement is not the prerogative of some incontrovertible elite. This idea may have deep historical roots Faraday's pioneering experiments, for example, were once derided because, apparently, he was not a gentleman. But such stuffy prejudices can be perilous.
Scientific discoveries too often tend to be treated as absolute truth, but in reality their findings are often provisional. Anyone who read Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel Never Let Me Go and blenched at his vision of the world into which a blind belief in science can take us, will understand why it matters. Man's age-old problems cannot simply be sorted by diligent application of the latest inventions. Emotions must be probed. A sense of the ludicrous has to be retained. If we are not to trample on our own humanity, art and science must be ever more closely linked.
THE MOST ludicrous experiment can have the most profound philosophical import. I have just finished Peter Brown 's fat biography of St Augustine of Hippo (rather less salacious a life than I had hoped). Retiring as a young man to live a life of Christian otium (a sort of earnest indolence), he and his companions pursued a few decidedly peculiar lines of inquiry. One day one of them found a centipede. The whole company gathered round to watch how its chopped-up portions continued to move of their own accord across a writing tablet. Problems immediately sprang to mind. Was the animating soul of the unfortunate arthropod also divisible? Was the soul, therefore, a material thing that could be chopped up?
Heaven forbid! That one little worm should disprove the Platonic doctrine of the immaterial nature of the soul.