Sylvia Plimack Mangold, The Nut Trees, 1985. Color woodcut, 16 1/2 x 24", edition 100.
I am helping to put together a series of biographies of artists who’ve done projects at Crown Point Press, and most recently I’ve been working on one for Sylvia Plimack Mangold. Lucky for me, Kathan Brown wrote about Plimack Mangold in her 1999 book, Why Draw A Landscape. In the first couple of pages, she says,
Sixty or seventy years ago, before the Great Depression and World War II, people in our grandparents’ generation were pretty confident that truth existed. They believed it was possible to understand the world as it is, always and forever. . . . Now, I think we have a different idea about the world and about the nature of creative work. This idea is not entirely a new one. Shakespeare phrased it poetically: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” What’s new about the idea is that it has become pervasive.
A few days later, I read an article in the New Yorker about the current state of string theory. In it, critic Jim Holt describes a change in attitude among physicists. The great dream of science has always been of breaking through to one, unifying Theory of Everything. Evidently, though, there are some recent problems with this, one being that since the 1990’s versions of string theory have just been proliferating. Many recent developments in the field are more reconciliatory than groundbreaking—instead of proving each other wrong, theorists have been expanding their versions of string theory to allow for other physicists’ versions, and the universes those versions imply, to exist side by side. (“Physicists who believe in such a ‘multiverse’ sometimes picture it as a cosmic champagne glass frothing with universe-bubbles.” Holt explains.) He writes, “the theory formerly known as strings remains a seductive conjecture rather than an actual set of equations, and the non-uniqueness problem [i.e. allowing for other universes] has grown to ridiculous proportions. At the latest count, the number of string theories is estimated to be something like one followed by five hundred zeroes.” If ideal scientific progress can be pictured as a clean and steady stream toward Truth, string theory is more of a heavy downpour.
Einstein discovered physical relativity, the idea that objects behave the same whether or not they are moving, and regardless of how fast, seemed to put us on a steady track. String theory, though, uncovers a sort of perceptual relativity. The idea that we could all be right, that there would be no one key to understanding the universe, reminds me of the parable of the blind men describing the elephant. Since they can only feel, and not see it, the men who touch the elephant’s head describe the animal as being like a pot. Those who feel its ear says it’s like a basket; the foot, a pillar; the tuft of the tail, a brush, and so on. Like these blind men, physicists are feeling around for the truth, and without proving each other wrong they are describing different aspects of it. What’s more, each discovery (the universe is a glass of champagne! the universe is a bunch of vibrating threads!) leads to more, detailed discoveries (the champagne glass froths in more than one directions! the threads are one-dimensional! etc), instead of broader ones. (Holt mentions a theorist named Karl Popper who believed that there will prove to be no end to the succession of deeper and deeper theories.)
Like artists, by presenting their different perspectives on truth, the string theorists Holt writes of are making the world more, not less complicated. Like a work of art, each version of the theory is complete and functional, containing its own, personal yet universal approach for understanding the very world it describes. Reading this article made me wonder: if the role of scientists is changing from the noble pursuit of the same objective Truth our grandparents and great-grandparents sought, to the formulation of countless, more subjective truths, is the gulf between science and art gradually closing? “The idea that ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ may be a beautiful one,” Holt notes, “but is there any reason to think it is true? Truth, after all, is a relationship between a theory and the world, whereas beauty is a relationship between a theory and the mind.” When it becomes difficult to pin down the difference between the world and the mind, beyond beauty the big Truth falls apart.
- Rachel Lyon