“That’s the why”, is a phrase my mother used to reserve for the annoying questions I would pose on arriving home from school. A frustrating evasion I thought at the time, even if it did save her sanity. But the phrase essentially sums up current scientific thought on wave-particle duality. A hundred years of scientists banging their heads against a wall and all we have to show for it are a set of equally unsatisfactory explanations, such as the Copenhagen interpretation or an infinity of universes.

Visual artists should surely love all this ambiguity with light, but apparently not. Although quantum mechanics has been the muse of poets and writers, visual artists and architects have not risen to the challenge of this most mysterious of nature’s secrets. In the past, art has mined the rich seam of spiritualism, the ineffable, the mysterious, using the language of beauty to express the inexplicable. However, it is rare to find art that willingly confronts the confounding mysteries found in science. Society is more inclined to erect a statue to a politician than to a scientific question such as wave-particle duality.

Perhaps it is because the scientific funding bodies, the potential patrons of such an undertaking, would rather fund science than monuments to what we don’t know. Or perhaps it is simply fear. Imagine the embarrassment when a paradigm shift lifts the veil and explains the mystery. It could cause riots, with dozens of scientists running through the streets and toppling statues to dark matter or relativity. But more likely it is because mathematics, the language of science, is perceived among scientists to be so much more expressive and beautiful than any other type of visual or structural language. Thus Schrödinger’s wave equation is itself a monument to the quantum mysteries, a kind of mathematical statue.

Despite the ambivalence of artists, the shadows of mathematical statues are present in much of 20th century art, especially in cubism, impressionism, surrealism, and abstractionism. Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Bridget Riley, whose retrospective exhibition opened in London’s Tate Britain on June 26th. In her early work, she paints in just black and white, lattices of squares, triangles, wavy lines, and hard edges. These geometric patterns are so simple they fool the eye. In the quiet of the gallery, the static lines come to life. They take on movements of their own that disorient the viewer. The paint appears to flow, to swirl, to grow. For a moment, the analytical part of the mind is able to curb the illusion and collapse the image back to its rightful place, back to a collection of two-dimensional lines. But it is a pyrrhic victory, the effort is too great, and the rational mind is ultimately crushed as the pattern springs free from the canvas once more. The tension between the simple geometric patterns and the disorienting swirling means that at times it seems the paintings are barely resisting implosion. Yet there are no optical tricks in the paintings, perception is the medium, just as in wave-particle duality, it is the act of observation that creates the effect.

Very few works of art make the transition into scientific culture and, thus, to become scientific visual icons. Of the surrealists, only Magritte has created scientific icons — and these in neuroscience, largely thanks to the use of one of his paintings on the cover of Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. In the physical sciences, Escher is the artist who has made the biggest impact with his drawings that manipulate perspective. Abstract images such as Riley’s Blaze I, though they speak a mathematical language, are not in favor in science departments, neither are other abstract artists like Pollock. Picasso’sLes Demoiselles d'Avignon hasn’t made it, despite an often repeated connection between the painting and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Cézanne’s Mont St. Victoire has made no impression, and neither has Manet nor Monet.

That there isn’t a greater connection between visual art and science is a shame because the scientific mysteries are part of the emotional life of scientists and, while they are only expressed as mathematical equations, these mysteries will remain largely hidden from public view and wonder.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00916-7