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Abstract Science?

Abstraction, not just mathematics, has its place in science as it does in art

Roald Hoffmann

Heating It Up

Abstract art is cold. And so is science. I put it this provocatively so as ultimately to work against this caricature, a prevalent one, I am afraid, of both abstract art and science. How can they both be “cold?” The way into emotion in abstraction (and the appreciation of science) is not direct. It has to be learned. Figurative portrayal, or even just the slightest evocation of the figurative gesture, may signal grief, tension, fear or love most directly. Sometimes it’s done in just a few lines; this is how cartoons work. I’ve seen people cry in the Rothko chapel in Houston, but they came with some appreciation of abstract art, and a contemplative mood.

Science’s cross is our insistence on depersonalizing experience, if it is to be crowned as reliable knowledge. The dehumanizing process has been enhanced in the past 200 years by the third- person, neutered language of that ossified ritual format of our stock-in-trade, the scientific article. What violence that dull language, that rigid format, does to the scientific imagination! How it dissipates in jargon the underlying thrill of feeling, say, the reactivity of a molecule turned upside down by clever substitution! Here science and abstract art have shared the consequences of dealing out the figurative and emotional.

Immanuel Kant understood that the artistic response is stirred by paired responses in us. These replies are both the instinctive emotional reaction to an object or a process, and the cognitive play with what we see or hear. One way to characterize the problem of perception that abstract art and science share is that when the figurative, natural or personal are pushed aside, the cognitive is emphasized. And thinking seems less warm. Oh, beauty comes back, no way of keeping its subversive pleasures out of the soul. But the initial impression of a shift in emphasis from the emotional to the cognitive is … coldness. Once again, music is the (magical) exception.

To restore emotion is harder for science than for abstract art. Form and color combine to make Kandinsky’s compositions kinetic and joyful. The formal tensions at work in Bertoia’s enclosures and Reinhardt’s paintings reward the viewer with the feeling that something is at stake. We are drawn in to look intently and the thought emerging out of that contemplation carries emotional import, as the abstraction shapes a passage to the soul. As Reinhardt wrote, “May not one side of me speak up for the side of the angels?”

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