Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Quantum Cubism", by JD

This recent post ended with an image of Georges Braque's painting 'Bottles and Fishes' and the conclusion - "Rather than individual historians arguing from differing standpoints, maybe modern history should be Cubist, offering many-faceted perspectives in the same composition."

That is a very astute observation and it is a viewpoint which could be applied to many other things.

A few months ago I was reading about quantum fragmentation as well as something else on consciousness and the fragmentation of memory and the quantum nature of our neural network. Can't remember exactly where I read it but it also mentioned how the visual cortex 'constructs' images from photons striking the rods and cones in the eyes etc etc (complicated thing to explain) and I had a 'light bulb' moment. I thought - that's a description of cubism! So I went searching in the almighty Google and, sure enough, others had been struck by the same idea. One of the things I found was this about the painter Jean Metzinger-

"For Metzinger, the classical vision had been an incomplete representation of real things, based on an incomplete set of laws, postulates and theorems. He believed the world was dynamic and changing in time, that it appeared different depending on the point of view of the observer. Each of these viewpoints were equally valid according to underlying symmetries inherent in nature. For inspiration, Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and one of the principle founders of quantum mechanics, hung in his office a large painting by Metzinger, La Femme au Cheval,[7] a conspicuous early example of 'mobile perspective' implementation (also called simultaneity).[8]"

And this is the painting-

Clearly Niels Bohr had seen the connection between his own thinking on the nature of reality as described by his work in the field quantum mechanics and Metzinger's thinking on how to represent reality using the medium of paint, how to represent time and movement as well as different viewpoints all within a single painting.

It is popularly assumed cubist and abstract painting was a response to photography and how the camera could portray the world just as well as or better than painters could. But that is not true. David Hockney has suggested that the invention of photography was a logical consequence of the invention of perspective in art. "The photograph is the ultimate Renaissance picture. It is the mechanical formulation of the theories of perspective of the Renaissance."

As I have explained previously in these pages, perspective is an aberration in the history of art. Look to Chinese scroll painting or Japanese art or even the Bayeux Tapestry and at no other time in history was verisimilitude considered important for the representation of the world.

Just as scientists at the end of the 19th century were dissatisfied with the orthodox view of physics so artists at the same time were also dissatisfied with the constraints of the rigidities of perspective. In both cases, scientists and artists 'knew' the world did not conform to previously held theories.

Before cubism appeared Claude Monet was increasingly preoccupied with the depiction of light. He would paint the same subject again and again trying to catch the subtleties of light at different times of day or different times of year. Think of his many depictions of haystacks. There is a series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral hanging side by side in the Musée d'Orsay (they may have been moved since I saw them there) and the effect is impressive.

"The cathedral paintings allowed him to highlight the paradox between a seemingly permanent, solid structure and the ever-changing light which constantly plays with our perception of it."

What Monet was doing was exploring the effects of what science calls quantum electrodynamics -

"QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electromagnetism giving a complete account of matter and light interaction."

The study of QED has its roots, believe it or not, in the scientific investigations of two Arab philosophers - Al Kindi (801 - 873 AD) and Ibn Al Haytham (965 - 1040 AD). Their theories were examined and expanded upon by Roger Bacon (c.1219/20 – c.1292) and by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (c.1175 – 1253) But with the arrival of the Renaissance (and the reconquista in Spain) interest in Arabian philosophers and scientists faded and such studies were forgotten until the 20th century.

The painter who really fused science with art was Salvador Dali.

"A symposium titled ‘Culture and Science: Determinism and Freedom’, held at the Dalí Teatre- Museu in 1985 was a fitting realisation of Dalí’s contemporary Renaissance belief ‘that artists should have some notions of science in order to tread a different terrain, which is that of unity’ (quotation in response to a journalist from Le Figaro newspaper, Salvador Dalí and Science, Carme Ruiz, Dalí Study Centre, Newspaper El Punt, 18 October 2000).

Attended by scientists, including some Nobel prize winners, philosophers, artists, writers and musicians, the conference sought to explore the role of chance in nature. Dalí, too weak to attend, but fascinated by the ideas and arguments expressed, watched from a television monitor in his bedroom, He later invited some of the key speakers, including René Thom and the Nobel Laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine, to meet him personally in order to engage in further discussion.

Dalí’s level of understanding of modern science is debated, but it is clear that his deep intuition allowed him to feel totally at ease in the company of scientists whose language was a constant source of inspiration to him. When Dalí died in 1989, books by Matila Ghyka, Erwin Schrödinger and Stephen Hawking were found by his bed."

A study of his paintings reveals a subtle incorporation of scientific ideas; "The persistence of memory" with its melting watches, "Leda Atomica" and especially "Corpus Hypercubus" which he described as a four dimensional representation of the Crucifixion. Even his elaborate signature was inspired by the liquid crown visible in a stroboscopic image of a milk-drop splash photographed by engineer Harold Edgerton in 1926.

Here is one of Dali's more interesting cubist pictures which plays games with our perception -Lincoln in Dalivision: This is a lithograph based on a painting by Dali. There are two versions of the original painting, one is in the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Spain and the other is in the permanent collection of The Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Recently David Hackney has been exploring similar ideas and this painting is a wonderful portrayal of spatial illusion as well as time, because of the time involved in looking at each part in relation to the whole and to other parts.

Hockney: A Walk Around the Hotel Courtyard, Acatlan, 1985 oil on 2 canvases, 72x240 in.
I have come to the reluctant conclusion that after the Renaissance, the scientific revolution begun by Robert Boyle and others, the Enlightenment, 'the age of reason', the industrial revolution, political revolutions in France the Americas and Russia and all culminating in the modern dream of artificial intelligence, it seems as though western 'civilisation' has lost its soul, has denied the existence of anything other than the material world.

Scientists delved deeper and deeper into matter looking to find the 'building blocks' of our existence and eventually found........ nothing. There are no building blocks, there is only energy. Einstein concluded that matter was nothing more than 'congealed electricity' and the Indian philosopher, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, describes the material world as being composed of 'frozen light'.

Over the past 500 years or so, all of western philosophical and scientific thought has been driven by logic and the error of that can be summed up by one of Niels Bohr's more famous quotes - "You're not thinking; you're merely being logical."

If one is only using logic, then no real thinking is taking place. Thinking requires logic along with critical analysis to form an evaluation. Or in other words, love of logic has superseded love of humanity. And AI, in particular, is an expression of the negation of humanity and a denial of the spirit within man.

It comes as no surprise then that the leading figures in sub-atomic enquiry were confounded by what they had discovered and, in order to make sense of it all they turned to to the east. Robert Oppenheimer went back to studying the Bhagavad Gita. David Bohm's book 'Wholeness and the Implicate Order' begins by looking at the differences between western and eastern ways of thinking.

This is all getting very complicated! But it is good to have our imagination teased and stretched, to continue to try to make sense of the world. And the only way to do that is to close your books (burn them as Michael Maier suggested?) and switch off all of your electronic distractions and go out and look at the world as if you had never seen it before. Look at it as being 'cubist' in appearance. See it in the way Dali 'saw' both Lincoln and his wife Gala within the same space. The fragments of reality you see depend on how you see them, whether they are close up or at a distance, in light or shade, static or moving etc. The mind must assemble and re-assemble these constantly changing fragments to come close to understanding what it is that we perceive.

To rephrase the quote at the beginning of this short essay, "Rather than individuals arguing from differing standpoints, maybe the world is Cubist, offering many-faceted perspectives in the same composition."


David Hockney-

Monet; Rouen Cathedral

quantum electrodynamics

Al Kindi and Ibn Al Haytham

Roger Bacon

Robert Grosseteste

the observer effect-

Dali and science

Dali and science

The dream of reason

Sri Aurobindo Ghose

Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad-Gita

David Bohm, 'Wholeness and the Implicate Order'


Nick Drew said...

What an excellent post! Thanks, JD

Some immediate, less-than-coordinated thoughts in the next couple of comments. Firstly, photography etc

(1) Hockney is indeed very interesting on perspective:
Hockney’s great quest: his passionate, obsessive attempt to remake the solid, moody, fleeting world in two dimensions. What do things look like, really, to stereoscopic human eyes, connected to a human heart and brain? Never mind the camera, with its rigid Cyclopean vision. There is a better way of seeing, though it might take a lifetime to master... “Perspective takes away the body of the viewer. You have a fixed point, you have no movement; in short, you are not there really. That is the problem,” he observed. “For something to be seen, it has to be looked at by somebody and any true and real depiction should be an account of the experience of that looking.” In short, he wanted to invite the viewer inside the picture ... The camera offered possibilities far removed from voguish photorealism. In his 1982 exhibition Drawing with a Camera he showed the composite cubist portraits he called “joiners”, made by collaging Polaroid photos, an approach that quickly inflected his paintings, too.

(2) I trained and practised for many years in (aerial) photographic interpretation, and very major part of which works from taking two pictures of the same thing from slightly different viewpoints. This emulates how eye-pairs work, of course, and yields the great boons of (a) stereoscopic vision and (b) greater resolution of the image, which at great distance (e.g. taken from 100,000 feet) might otherwise be quite grainy. But resolution works on a 'squares' principal (felicitous nomenclature!) - two images gives 4 x the resolution.

Nowadays computers can enhance matters still further by synthetically overlaying 3 (for x9), 4 (for x16) etc etc - and then produce a hologram! Full 3-D resolution produced from a set of 2-D images: cubism in action!

onto next comment ...

Nick Drew said...

now to what I take to be the philosophical implications, of both JD' post and Sacker's perceptive initial suggestion (Cubist history)

the great Victorian thinkers - Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche & Freud - all invite us to be *circumspect* (or maybe *highly suspicious*, or even [in some hands] dismissive) before taking anyone's account of anything at face value, most specifically including statements made about the self. In their different ways they all offer insights as to what might 'actually be behind' a statement

(for Marx it is likely to be an economic reality masked by 'false consciousness'; for Freud, the 'repressed unconscious' etc; for Nietzsche, whatever are the [various] real drivers behind the 'surface of consciousness'; and Darwin can be interpreted as underpinning a lot of these notions)

It seems to me the merit of all these insights (plural perspectives again, haha!) is that a multiplicity of penetrative approaches can illuminate (etc) much better than any single 'snapshot', however accurate that snap may be from its single perspective - just as the good Cubist painter (and the caricaturist, I like to think) captures more; and the multiple camera angles achieve 3-D from a series of 2-Ds

if (with the C19 greats, as opposed to the post-modernist pigmies and flat-minders) we accept that the 'something' being illuminated is (potentialy) Real, we can term this 'Perspectivist Realism'

PS, an interesting result from quantum mechanics / string theory: the 'contents' (technically - the 'Information', as understood by the 2nd Law of thermodynamics) swallowed by a black hole is proportional to the area of its horizon-boundary, i.e. to a surface. Personally, my untutored intuition would have been that it would be proportional to its mass. But no. Another score for the Cubist approach, I'd say

Paddington said...

A few thoughts:

1. It is a great stretch to attribute the beginnings of QED to Al Kindi and the others. You might as well throw in Euclid and Newton. They simply did not have the data or support to even consider these models, and were living in a time when everything had a 'reason', which Quantum Mechanics suggests is not the case.

2. It isn't that scientists deny existence outside the material world, it's that the idea is to study that which can be reproduced. If you get us Thor into a laboratory, we'll work on him.

3. Oppenheimer might have turned to the East to describe the ramifications of what he had done. He and the others gained zero scientific insight from that introspection. The results came from hard science and very difficult mathematics.

Sackerson said...

@Nick - not sure what that black hole info quite means, but I understand that information is not lost when something is swallowed, it is retained as microscopic irregularities on the surface.

Nick Drew said...

swallowed but not lost! or not digested ... or something!