The Universe as a Muse

Natural History Magazine

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

From Natural History Magazine, December 2000/January 2001

In many ways science and art are profoundly similar. The best of each rise up from the depths of human creativity, nurtured by an individual's commitment and passion to the discipline. In common parlance, we are equally likely to hear (or say ourselves) She's got it down to a science or He's raised it to an art. In other ways, however, science and art are profoundly different. The most important scientific theories of all time, those that came from the minds of undeniably great scientists, would all have been discovered eventually by one or more other scientists. In some cases, important theories or discoveries have been rushed to publication out of fear of being scooped by someone else. In art, however, Leonardo daVinci didn't have to rush-paint his Mona Lisa out of fear that somebody else was going to create the identical portrait. And if Ludwig van Beethoven had never been born, nothing remotely approximating his famous Ninth symphony would ever be written by anybody, anywhere, at any time.

If art indeed imitates life, then art is an expression of the beauty, the tragedy, and the complexity of the human condition. Central to imitating the human condition is the need to explore our sense of place and purpose in the world. If the discoveries of science are viewed by society as detached from this calling then one would never expect science to inspire creativity in the artist, or more specifically, one would never expect art to reach for scientific themes.

For most of the twentieth century the image of scientists held by the public was the wild-haired, lab coat-wearing, test-tube holding, unkempt looking, antisocial variety. But what mattered more than these stereotypes was that scientists typically conducted their work in the confines of laboratories and rarely communicated their work to the public, unless the results had direct implications for national health or defense. And, even then, the results were only occasionally communicated by the scientists themselves.

True, the great physicists Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Faraday, Eddington, Jeans, and Einstein all wrote popular accounts of their works. But they were exceptions. In modern times, along with traditional science writers, it's expected (and even common) for scientists to communicate discoveries to the public through magazines, books, television, and public talks. During any week of your choosing, a dozen science programs appear on PBS and on cable TV channels, while multiple science news stories makes headlines in the daily newspapers.

And just recently, within a two-month period, I saw the Tony award winning play Copenhagen on Broadway, where the audience was transfixed to a re-telling of important episodes in the history of particle physics and quantum mechanics as they related to the making of the first atomic bomb. I noted that Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, a book on the search for a theory of everything, was still high on the best seller list. I attended a dance performance titled Elements, featuring four dancers (Earth Air Fire and Water, of course) which was inspired by modern themes of geology and geophysics. And I attended another dance performance titled Strings, inspired by string theory, and the major tenets of the big bang. I also read that a new play was being produced that explored mathematical theorems. Its title? Proof.

This persistent emergence of the creative voice is surely just a small part a broader movement. If the artist's ways are any indication, the public has embraced science like never before—not as something cold and distant, but as something warm and nearby. From the mysteries of the big bang to the mapping of the human genome, to the stellar origin of the chemical elements of life itself, people are beginning to feel that cosmic discoveries made by members of our own species belong to us all. People see, perhaps for the first time, that they are no longer bystanders in the scientific enterprise but vicarious participants.

As the new century begins, I wonder whether the discoveries of modern science—those of astrophysics in particular—are accessible enough and sufficient in number to declare that we are entering a new era of artistic inspiration. Like the religious and mythological sources that so influenced art before and during the Renaissance, countless artists today are moved by the need to capture the cosmos—on film, in dance, and on canvas. I'd bet that the theories and discoveries of modern science have limitless capacity to harness human emotion and unbridled wonder. If so, then artists can count among their many muses the secrets of the universe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, is the Frederick P. Rose Director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium and a visiting research scientist at Princeton University.