The search for essence

. . . the turning point comes in 1897, when J. J. Thomson in Cambridge discovers the electron. Yes, the atom has constituent parts; it is not indivisible, as its Greek name had implied. The electron is a tiny part of its mass or weight, but a real part, and it carries a single electric charge.

. . . That is the intellectual breakthrough with which modern physics begins. Here the great age opens. Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of science no, more than that, the great collective work of art of the twentieth century.

I say "work of art," because the notion that there is an underlying structure , a world within the world of the atom, captured the imagination of artists at once. Art from the year 1900 on is different from the art before it, as can be seen in any original painter of the time: Umberto Boccioni, for instance, in "The Forces of a Street," or his "Dynamism of a Cyclist." Modern art begins at the same time as modern physics because it begins in the same ideas.

Since the time of Newton's Opticksm , painters had been entranced by the coloured surface of things. The twentieth century changed that. Like the X-ray pictures of Rontgen, it looked for the bone beneath the skin, and for the deeper , solid structure that builds up from the inside the total form of an object or a body. A painter like Juan Gris is engaged in the analysis of structure, whether he is looking at natural forms in "Still Life" or at the human form in "Pierrot."

The Cubist painters, for example, are obviously inspired by the families of crystals. They see in them the shape of a village on a hillside, as Georges Braque did in his "Houses at L'Estaque," or a group of women asa Picasso painted them in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." In Pablo Picasso's famous beginning to Cubist painting -- a single face, the "Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler" -- the interest has shifted from the skin and features to the underlying geometry. The head has been taken apart into mathematical shapes and then put together as a reconstruction, a re-creation, from the inside out.

This new search for the hidden structure is striking in the painters of Northern Europe: Franz Marc, for example, looking at the natural landscape in "Deer in a Forest"; and (a favourite with scientists) the Cubist Jean Metzinger, whose "Woman on a Horse" was owned by Niels Bohr, who collected pictures in his house in Copenhagen. . . . His taste for the arts also ran to poetry. He said to Heisenberg, "When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as poetry." The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images. But it is so. What lies below the visible world is always imaginary, in the literal sense: a play of images. There is no other way to talk about the invisible -- in nature, in art, or in science.

When we step through the gateway of the atom, we are in a world which our senses cannot experience. There is a new architecture there, a way that things are put together which we cannot know: we only try to picture it by analogy, a new act of imagination. The architectural images come from the concrete world of our senses, because that is the only world that words describe. But all our ways of picturing the invisible are metaphors, likenesses that we snatch from the larger world of eye and ear and touc. From 'The Ascent of Man,' by J. Brono wski.

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