How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art

By Arthur I. Miller

Norton. 424 pp. $35

In 2000, the Australian artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr bioengineered a punchline. They began with porcine stem cells and a small, biodegradable, three-dimensional scaffold, which was slowly replaced by the growing cells. They coated with gold the familiar shape that resulted. The project’s title: “Pig Wings.”

"Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art" by Arthur I. Miller. (W. W. Norton/W. W. Norton)

This is an example of sciart: art inspired or influenced by science. The growing movement forms the subject of “Colliding Worlds,” by Arthur I. Miller, a former physicist and an emeritus professor of philosophy and history of science. He follows the field from its beginning in the 1960s until today, profiling dozens of artists and their collaborations with scientists and engineers. What motivates them? How has the art world received their work? And do they consider themselves artists, scientists or both? “I’ve limited myself to artists whose works illuminate science and might even contribute to scientific advances,” he writes in the preface. “I am less interested in those who simply use science to illustrate their themes.” Does he succeed?

Many of the pieces Miller presents illuminate science in some way, at least for nonscientific audiences. The cover image depicts “Island Universe,” a set of five silver spheres by Josiah McElheny, each with protruding rods that hold small glass disks meant to represent galaxies. The piece illuminates the fact that the universe is expanding — and that there might be more than one. But mostly it’s just pretty.

For another piece, “Cogito Ergo Sum 3,” Susan Aldworth created a beautiful grid of images including scans of her own brain and drawings of faces. One panel reads, “Can you see me? I am inside and outside.” The piece illuminates the limitations in seeing who a person really is by looking at brain scans.

Another, “Untitled 91101,” overlays physics equations on a painting of Neolithic pottery. The artist, Steve Miller, calls the pottery early “investigations of matter, taking dirt and doing this.” The piece illuminates the scope of human ingenuity.

On the other hand, many of the works don’t have much to say about science. For the literally illuminating “Light, only Light,” Jun Takita created a three-dimensional sculpture of his brain based on an MRI scan and covered it with glowing moss. “This is the expression of man’s impossible desire to possess light,” the artist offers. Trippy, but what chapter of the textbook would that belong in?

And few if any works contribute to scientific advances. We get sort of close with Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand, two artists who shine lasers through clusters of soap bubbles, projecting the filmy interactions as neat patterns. Miller calls it “art as research,” but it’s not clear that they have a particular hypothesis in mind, and Miller doesn’t press.

Several people in the book argue that art and science are one, sharing the mission of making the invisible visible, a view Miller to which appears sympathetic. (Chapter 1 is titled “In Search of the Invisible.”) One artist declares, “Art does a similar thing [to science]: it proposes a model through which we can look at the world around us.” But this is meaningless. History, mathematics and stand-up comedy also propose models through which we can look at the world. Art and science starkly differ in the types of models they employ, a central issue that Miller does not sufficiently interrogate. Unbelievably, in 350 pages on the supposed convergence of artistic and scientific approaches to the world, the scientific method is not mentioned once.

It’s telling that those who blur the distinction between art and science are predominantly artists. The scientists consistently tell Miller that their collaborations with artists are interesting but scientifically unhelpful. One described a collaborator’s influence as “like a breeze blowing cross-bow on an oil tanker.” The brightest spot of potential I see for art helping science is in data visualization, in which a creative, evocative display might enable a researcher to better conceptualize the significance of measurements.

Not only does Miller fail to precisely parse science from art, he also conflates science and technology, using the terms interchangeably. Most of the book is, in fact, about art and technology, not art and science. That’s all very interesting — my master’s thesis covered one of his subjects, David Cope, who writes AI software that composes classical music — but that’s not the show I came to see. Anyone who has watched a mechanical mobile or played a video game understands that art and technology are natural bedfellows. The possible symbiosis of art and science is a more startling proposition.

What would a real melding look like? “It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination,” Miller writes, “to envisage people in the future . . . producing theories that generate images that can be manipulated like equations and which are aesthetic according to some new definition of the term.” I don’t know about you, but I feel my imagination stretching. It would have been helpful if Miller had fleshed out this conception rather than relegating it to one tantalizing sentence in the final chapter of his book.

So, will science and art ever completely merge? I believe there’s a saying about that. To see what I mean, first obtain some porcine stem cells.

Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.”