The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art

ISBN : 9780198797999

Tom McLeish
400 Pages
138 x 216 mm
Pub date
Mar 2019
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  • Challenges the obvious assumption science is less creative than art and illustrates the contrary
  • Treats art and science on an equal footing
  • Draws on historical and contemporary examples to provide a broader understanding
  • Brings medieval philosophy and theology to bear on current questions of creativity
  • Reports on individual conversations with artists and scientists and provides personal perspectives on their creative processes
  • Illustrates with rich and detailed examples

What human qualities are needed to make scientific discoveries, and which to make great art? Many would point to 'imagination' and 'creativity' in the second case but not the first. This book challenges the assumption that doing science is in any sense less creative than art, music or fictional writing and poetry, and treads a historical and contemporary path through common territories of the creative process. The methodological process called the 'scientific method' tells us how to test ideas when we have had them, but not how to arrive at hypotheses in the first place. Hearing the stories that scientists and artists tell about their projects reveals commonalities: the desire for a goal, the experience of frustration and failure, the incubation of the problem, moments of sudden insight, and the experience of the beautiful or sublime.
Selected themes weave the practice of science and art together: visual thinking and metaphor, the transcendence of music and mathematics, the contemporary rise of the English novel and experimental science, and the role of aesthetics and desire in the creative process. Artists and scientists make salient comparisons: Defoe and Boyle; Emmerson and Humboldt, Monet and Einstein, Schumann and Hadamard. The book draws on medieval philosophy at many points as the product of the last age that spent time in inner contemplation of the mystery of how something is mentally brought out from nothing. Taking the phenomenon of the rainbow as an example, the principles of creativity within constraint point to the scientific imagination as a parallel of poetry.


Introduction: Creativity and Constraint
1: Creative Inspiration in Science
2: Seeing the Unseen: Visual Imagination, and the Unconscious
3: Experimental Science and the Art of the Novel
4: Music and Mathematics: Creating the Sublime
5: Emotion and Reason in Scientific Creation
6: The End of Creation

About the author: 

Tom McLeish FRS is Professor of Natural Philosophy at York University, where he works with chemists, engineers and biologists in universities and industry to connect material properties with their molecular structure. He also works on connections between science and policy, history (e.g. interdisciplinary re-examinations of medieval scientific treatises) and the humanities, resulting in the recent books Faith and Wisdom in Science (OUP 2014). He was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University (2008-2014) and is Chair of the Royal Society's Education Committee. He has been a Reader in the Anglican Church since 1993.

"[McLeish] proves himself [an] extreme interdisciplinarian ... Thanks to its poetic nature and compelling signposts for discussion, I suspect McLeish's book would have aphrodisiac qualities for the right audience... No matter what your field, you will come away from the book sold, as I am, on the need to prioritise time for creative gestation." - Rivka Isaacson, Times Higher Edcuation Supplement

"McLeish takes his reader on a journey through classical, medieval, romantic and modern art and science, exploring similarities in the creative processes that drove the greatest painters, writers and scientists towards their accomplishments... There are a number of vivid descriptions of seminal pieces of physics that showcase McLeish's talent for communicating science... interwoven with equally lavish introductions of many works of art and personal experiences of artists." - David Abergel, Nature Physics

"McLeish chases the echoes between scientific and artistic creativity in this intriguing scholarly treatise." - Nature

"Poetry and science are both rooted in the imagination ... At first sight I could not see the connection. But then I made the mistake of allowing myself to think about it. McLeish's ... theme is laid out very thoroughly. Give yourself a couple of quiet days to master it." - Quentin de la Bedoyere, Catholic Herald

"This kind of book is rarer than it should be, and all the more valuable. It dares to take seriously and probe deeply the interplay of the arts and the sciences. In place of the tired notion of Two Cultures, Tom McLeish reveals - passionately, and with great scholarship - the many meaningful points of contact between the sciences and music, literature and visual art. May this start a new and rich conversation!" - Philip Ball, Science Writer

"Where do creative ideas come from? There is an answer, and it is the same in art as in science. There is a hidden wellspring inside the human mind from which they arise continuously. Tom McLeish provides meticulous evidence by interrogating the greatest minds. The result is a brilliant kaleidoscopic view of the history of imagination." - Uta Frith FBA FRS, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

"Anyone who believes that imagination, inspiration and creativity are the preserve of the arts should read this beautifully crafted ode to the enterprise of scientific discovery." - Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Surrey

"Within the short compass of this subtle and elegant exposition, McLeish tackles one of the most disabling narratives of our time. Creativity is neither a luxury nor a disqualification in a world whose survival requires all our imaginative resources, and it infuses the arts and sciences in uncannily similar ways. The author has also created a rare and beautiful thing: few could embrace such a range of artistic and scientific endeavour with such an uplift." - Marilyn Strathern DBE, Professor of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University

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