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A World of Imagination

This article originally published in Connections, Issue 8, January 1996

To take a one week course with David Peat

Fundamental questions about the nature of matter, space and time inspire both scientists and artists. Just as art can unlock the creative spirit, it would seem that science can also.

Connections spoke to physicist and science writer, Dr. F. David Peat, and writer and actor, Jack Klaff, about science, art and imagination.

"We had a coal-shed where I used to do experiments," recalls David Peat of his Liverpudlian childhood. "I loved experiments. I remember one time stewing up glycerine with nitric acid to make nitro-glycerine. I got really scared: I thought it was going to blow up my dad when he went in to get the coal." His dad survived that encounter, but Peat's playful experimentation came to an abrupt end when he went to study physics at university in the 1950s: "It was all structured. The experiments were ready-presented to you: you just did them and, depending on your manual dexterity, you got better results that other people. I found that very boring."

Although disillusioned by his teaching as an undergraduate, Peat stayed with physics, working with the theoretical group at the National Research Council in Canada. Increasingly intrigued by fundamental questions in relativity and quantum physics, he found his imagination rekindled when he went on sabbatical to Birkbeck College in London. There he met the visionary physicist David Bohm. In conversation with Bohm, Peat found himself wandering beyond physics. He began to reconsider the order of space and time, realising that any investigation of the physical universe must accommodate the question of human consciousness. Working to incorporate ideas of subjectivity into science, he discovered a new-found enthusiasm for the arts and became a keen theatre-goer.

This enthusiasm for art has since informed much of Peat's work. He describes himself as a "performance physicist" and alongside his science research and writing, he has also written plays for radio and theatre. He is currently in London, exploring concepts of matter and space in the work of artists including Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread. "We have to come to terms with matter" he says, "I think that there's a tendency in our society to escape into spirit, but ultimately we have to return to the physical world." A work such as Whiteread's House (1993), in which the object is removed and only the cast remains forces us to ask: Where is the work of art? How is it made and how does it exist? Anish Kapoor conjures up a related set of paradoxes in Turning the world inside out (1995). While the smooth and shining surface of a giant aluminum sphere casts back a distorted image of the observer, the sculputre seems to pour itself up inot a cylindrical channel at its core. A gallery notice warning visitors not to touch seems superfluous, for here is an object we cannot get to grips with. As Peat observes "When we try to come into contact with matter, it somehow disappears from us".

Excited to discover that artists are getting close to the questions that physicists are asking about the nature of matter, he is nonetheless concerned about the indiscriminate assimilation of scientific ideas. "I'm concerned when I see people swept away, particularly if I'm talking about something like superstrings. Then I have to stop and draw their attention to the fact that they've been swept away. It can be a drug, the imagination."

If Peat is cautious of the power of rhetoric and ideas, writer and actor Jack Klaff expertly exploits and turns it on its head in his show, 'Professor A.A. Singleton-Guinness'. In the guise of the unswervingly rationalist Professor (winner of the Nobel Prize for keeping science unsullied by art), he launches a bitter attack on the "mystic scientists in thrall to the spooky concepts of holistic philosophy". Inciting his audience to anger and laughter, Klaff exposes blinkered scientific reductionism by arguing its case ad absurdum. "I want the audience to laugh," he says of his virtuoso performance, "but I also want them to feel the coldness that hangs about rationality. They need to be chilled by the relentlessness of the Professor's 'Prove It' mentality."

Klaff brings refreshing humour and a bracing irreverence to science, exposing set thinking and formality that pose as authority. David Peat, in his book Blackfoot Physics (1995), describes the role of the Trickster American mythology, who "is constantly turning rules on their head". "The clown (the Trickster) reminds us of the irrational within our universe ... and the futility of our quest for certainty, control and absolute power." Peat feels that Western science has its own Tricksters: he cites entropy or disorder: "If we insist upon general order, it can only be done at the expense of creating disorder somewhere else." Alongside scientific developments such as quantum physics and chaos, the concept of entropy in thermodynamics highlights the underlying flux of nature: the universe is not a clockwork mechanism and a quantity of discrete objects, but a set of interacting processes and relational fields.

Jack Klaff believes that "a good definition of science is one in which everything is inter-related and does not exclude questions posed by other cultures". Such an open approach takes science out of the lab and into the domain of everyday experience, and here we need Tricksters like Klaff and Peat to challenge the divisive regime of the Two Cultures and develop a dialogue in which we can all participate.

Contact F. David Peat

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