Friday, February 10, 2006

art and science: what they are, what they aren't

I've been thinking about how to arrange some talks between artists -- literary fiction writers, mostly -- and scientists, how they might be structured so we don't just talk past each other.

James Tata sent me a link he thought I might be interested in; it's an interview with physicist Lisa Randall, in which she talks about working with novelist Cormac McCarthy. It was essentially an interested McCarthy editing her manuscript -- she'd never read his books before he involved himself -- and I think the interview may illuminate a gap between the cultures of science and art.

Randall herself is a mystery reader, and it's a popular genre, but I hear a lot of scientists light up about mysteries when I ask them about hobbies or what they like to read for fun. When you're a writer, people who aren't writers often tell you their story ideas, and when I think back on it, scientists have generally offered puzzle-stories like mysteries. Many of them have also told me they like doing science because they like puzzles. And I'm beginning to wonder if there's a commonly-held, fundamental misperception, on the science side, of what literary writers do, what we perceive story to be. I guess it wouldn't be surprising. I'd expect most of us don't know what they do, either, or what they perceive science and their work to be.

Maybe the first thing to do in any sort of conference or conversation would be for the scientists and writers to talk about what their work is and is not. I know the answers would be quite varied on the fiction side. I don't know what might come out on the science side. And that alone seems worth finding out.

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