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Catalysts

What generates a new theory in science? Somewhere along the way of a scientist’s life a catalyst occurred, a thought, an event,…By Kevin Berger

What generates a new theory in science? Somewhere along the way of a scientist’s life a catalyst occurred, a thought, an event, an experience, an influence, that entered the mix of his or her work, changed it, and inspired a new way forward.

Arthur I. Miller, an emeritus professor of the history and philosophy of science, is the foremost chronicler of the intersection of art and science. In the 1950s, British author C.P. Snow saw science and the humanities rent into two cultures, but that dichotomy is no more relevant in the 21st century than Pat Boone. Miller has documented a third culture of art, which incorporates scientific practices and concepts, and reflects how humanity is being redefined in age of computer-brain interfaces and movies like Her.

When Miller, who has a Ph.D. in physics, considers one of the most important catalysts in science, he thinks of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, and in particular his notion of “complementarity.” Bohr’s view asserts the “wave and particle aspects of an electron could be complementary in the yin-yang sense but at the same time mutually exclusive, which meant that only one side could ever be ‘seen’ in an experiment,” Miller writes in his book, Colliding Worlds. “In other words, however you looked at an atomic entity, that was precisely what it was—either wave or particle, but never both at the same time.”

Miller and other science historians say a catalyst for Bohr’s complementarity principle was the art movement cubism, famously associated with Picasso. A leading theorist of cubism, painter Jean Metzinger, co-wrote in a manifesto, On Cubism, that a Cubist painting appeared to observers as if they were “moving around an object in order to seize it from several successive appearances.” Bohr, who had furnished his study with a Metzinger painting, Miller relates, “offered a motif for the world of the atom that had striking parallels to the multiple perspectives offered by Cubism, providing a way of glimpsing beyond and behind the world of perceptions.”

This month’s issue, which features Miller’s work, offers multiple perspectives on catalysts in science, from cosmology to medicine, neuroscience to physics. It illuminates the elusive agents of change that spark ever-emergent worlds.


Lead image: pogonici / Shutterstock

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