Abstraction, not just mathematics, has its place in science as it does in art


Abstract Science?
Analysis as the Path to Abstraction
Mark Rothko paintingClick to Enlarge ImageA characteristic modus operandi in abstract art, from Russian constructivist times, has been the concentration on one or another component of the artistic whole. Issues of form—the center or the periphery, inclusion or exclusion, see-through or opaque, balance, color—are isolated. Ad Reinhardt’s beautiful all-red and all-black paintings are a fine example of this concentration. The contemplative process here can lead to an exploration of the emotional possibilities of just that formal element. One sees this motif at work in Klee’s abstract paintings, or in Rothko’s color fields (right). Roberto Bertoia, a colleague at Cornell, works out beautifully in small wood constructions the feelings of confinement, protection and communication (below right).
Robert Bertoia sculptureClick to Enlarge ImageOf course, science, from its Cartesian roots, has operated in just this way. If you want to understand something, take it apart, see how the pieces work, put it together (although too few people like to put things together …). Change only one variable at a time, if you can. If you want to see how a chemical reaction proceeds, write a mechanism, a sequence of elementary steps. Once the mechanism is recognized, have research programs develop on the pieces and extend the work. Taking things apart, as science does, is a move shared with abstract art. Roald Hoffmann.