Leonard Shlain:
ART AND PHYSICS (Perennial, 1991)

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Shlain would be a great historian of art. One only wishes that he would write a history of art the way he wrote his analyses of artists in this book. Its contribution to understanding the artistic mind would probably be significant.
THe problem with this book, instead, is that it is not clear what it sets out to prove. Shlain's panoramic view of the arts and the sciences over the centuries is intriguing and full of interesting commentary, but the parallel that he wants to trace between the two is fuzzy at best. His review of the Greek and Renaissance and Modern ages doesn't quite prove what he stated at the beginning, that "art anticipates" science. In fact, the chronology often seems to point in the other direction. Sometimes he simply neglects too much of science for his theory to be comprehensible. For example, he claims that painters of the 19th century pioneered the critique of Newtonian determinism before Quantum and Relativity Physics, but ignores Thermodynamics and Electromagnetism that had already created an "anti-Newtonian" climax in Science and probably indirectly influenced the painters whom Shlain mentions as leading the revolution (Manet, Monet, etc). He misleads the reader into thinking that for two centuries after Newton there was no progress in Science when in fact Newton's science of solid bodies ruled for a relatively brief time, soon challenged by a science based on statistics (Thermodynamics) and one based on waves (Electromagnetism). It would be more correct to write that in 1824 Sadi Carnot founded Thermodynamics. In 1831 Michael Faraday showed that interaction between bodies (e.g., electricity) is transmitted through a field. In 1850 Rudolf Clausius introduced entropy. In 1851 Armand Fizeau measured the speed of light. In 1859 Le Verrier discovered that Newton's formulas could not explain the perihelion of the planet Mercury. And then, after so much turmoil in science that had challenged all certainties, in 1863 Manet painted "Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe". Shlain, instead, turns the chronology upside down by omitting all those monumental scientific achievements and showing Manet as the precursor of a scientific revolution when in fact he followed it. Shlain argues that the French impressionists revolutionized the concept of light and color before Einstein showed how crucial light is. True but he neglects the fact that he himself mentions a bit later: just a few years before the impressionist boom, studies on electromagnetism had revolutionized the concepts of light and color, for example by showing that the visible spectrum of color corresponded to a tiny subset of a much larger continuum of mostly invisible frequencies. The impressionists were painting in a world that had just learned that light and color were not such simple concepts.
Shlain focuses on space, time and light as the cardinal elements of both (western) art and (western) science. It is debatable though. Probably the very scientists of the western tradition would not have chosen those entities. Some would think that energy or mass (Newton's great invention) rank higher than light, while space was hardly ever discussed (taken as granted). Time was undoubtedly a western obsession ever since St Augustine.
There are no major controversies that could arise from the premises of this book (unlike his two next books), other than a slight Anglosaxon bias (When he states that "Euclid's Elements is probably the second most widely read book in the history of the world", he is either assuming that most Muslims are illiterate or that most Christians don't read the Bible anymore, and he probably underestimates the number of literate Hindus who can read the Ramayama and Mahabarata). Little claims here and there are harmless. He thinks that the Greeks invented science and philosophy as a consequence of having invented the alphabet with vowels, a very far-fetched theory.
He also credits Euclid with too much: Euclid merely assembled a manual of what was known to the Greeks. Shlain presents Greek geometry as if it was invented overnight by Euclid himself. The quality of Euclid's chapters varies because his sources varied. Book four (circles) is probably borrowed from the Pythagoras school. Book eight (geometrical progressions) is plainly amateurish. Book ten (irrational numbers) is mainly the work of Theaetetus. Much of his writings on three-dimensional geometry are probably borrowed from Eudoxus. What makes Euclid great is not having invented geometry (he himself never dreamed of claiming that) but having presented it in a lucid, simple and rigorous manner that would set the standard for future textbooks (of any subject).
Talking of the Greek "invention" of linear time, Shlain surprisingly does not mention clocks. There is no sign of a Greek interest in keeping time before Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the inflow water clock in the third C BC. The "outflow" water clocks was known in Egypy much earlier than in Greece, where it first appears around 325 BC. I am not sure that this late adoption of clocks is consistent with Shlain's claim that the Greek civilization had such a strong concept of past, present and future. Even the claim that Herodotus was the first man to see the uniqueness of historical events is disputable. There were chronicles in Babylonia and even in the Bible. What made Herodotus greater than previous "storytellers" was that he provided an explanation for the historical events, not just a trite list of events. Shlain seems to think that Herodotus' greatness stems from having been the first one to record historical events. That is definitely not true. We know the names of all Sumerian kings because of the "King List" of 2,125 BC. The concept of linear time definitely predates the Greeks.
The book also mentions (p. 133) the "four" paradoxes of Zeno (they were eight, and philosophers commonly discuss three, but "four" is an odd number) and claims (p. 143) that children did not appear consistently as the sole subject of paintings before Manet (there were, obviously, countless portraits of children of the aristocracy in the previous centuries).
These mistakes and far-fetched statements, probably due to a lack of due diligence, detract a bit from what would be a fascinating walk through the history of human knowledge.


(An anecdote. In the chapter titled "East-West", Shlain writes "While most people in the West think of bonsai as a form of gardening, in the East it is a traditional art form". I happened to have a very polite and humble Japanese visitor so i asked her "what is bonsai?" She replied: "Gardening". I read her Shlain's sentence that bonsai is not gardening but an art form. She replied: "Yes, i know, that's what Westerners think".)

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