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Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light [Hardcover]

Leonard Shlain
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 1991 0688097529 978-0688097523 1st
Art interprets the visible world; physics charts its unseen workings--and so the two disciplines seem constantly opposed. In this remarkable book, Shlain examines the radical breakthroughs in art and physics side by side, throughout history, in every era, and reveals astonishing similarities of vision. "A fascinating study of common archetypes in art and science."--Nick Herbert, author of Quantuum Reality. 72 black-and-white photographs.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Leonardo da Vinci's complex sequential drawings, of pigeon wings fluttering in flight and of patterns made by fast-flowing water, anticipated time-lapse photography by 300 years. Surrealist painters' space-time distortions seemingly foreshadowed Einstein's theory of relativity. Franz Kline and Kazimir Malevich attempted to make abstract paintings devoid of image, color and light years before physicists fully accepted the notion that black holes could exist. Using these and other examples, Shlain, a Northern California surgeon, advances his thesis that art is precognitive: artists conjure up revolutionary images and metaphors comprising preverbal expressions of the novel concepts later formulated by physicists. He roots his theory in brain research and in a Jungian archetypal unconscious said to be stored in DNA strands. His provocative discussion is rigorous enough to appeal to the skeptical scientist yet wholly accessible and engaging to the art lover or general reader. Many potential connections between art and science are brought into full focus, aided by scores of art reproductions, photographs and diagrams.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Shlain, a California surgeon, has bravely ventured into two disparate areas beyond the reach of his certified expertise in the medical sciences. He presents herein a number of periods in the history of art and the history of physics, comparing and contrasting the prevailing theories in each of these fields in different eras. Although they are commonly seen as being very different--or even opposite--the author argues that there are striking parallels in the histories of the two fields. He further states that "revolutionary art anticipates visionary physics," thus asserting an actual connection between the two. The book is provocative and, of course, likely to be controversial; physicists are especially likely to be skeptical of his thesis. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.
- Jack W. Weigel, Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Co; 1st edition (August 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688097529
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688097523
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #900,162 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From one neophyte to another February 16, 2006
Being that my day to day occupation involves no thinking about physics in any complex way, or composition of music, literature, sculpting or painting, I feel in some ways disqualified from making certain kinds of assessments about Shlain's book.

I cannot find fault with his understanding of the Theory of Relativity because, quite frankly, I am a physics neophyte. Similarly, I cannot fault his understanding of certain works of art or periods in art history because I am not a specialist in that field either. Some discontents will point out that this makes it possible for me to be hoodwinked into believing something because of my lack of expertise and, more importantly, given that Shlain is also a novice in either field, should automatically disqualify him from talking about something he knows very little about.

If that was all there was to the story, I would agree and I would lambast the book, but this is not the only thing that is at play here.

Many people take umbrage with Shlain for trying to make connections where they seemingly don't exist. Why should anyone believe that H.G. Welles stumbled upon the theory of relativity before Einstein? Why should anyone concede that the rediscovery of perspective in art would bring about revolutionary scientific and social movements? Why on earth should we buy into the idea that Duchamp's famous "Nude Descending Down a Staircase" presaged the advancements made by Feynman? Making connections of this sort is unconscionable, cries the critic, but is it really?

The book is a work of fancy and curiosity. Right off the bat Shlain professes his lack of expertise. You know you're dealing with one man's inquiry into what interest him. Simply put, Shlain is open to wonder. "Is there a connection?
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous April 21, 2000
I've read a lot of books in my life. This is probably the best. The juxtaposition of generally exclusive topics - physics and art - is enough to put this work near the top on anyone's list. That it does it so well, and so meticulously, sends it to the head of the list.
Schlain's exploration of the parallels between mankind's expanding understanding of the physical world and the concurrent changes in styles of physical art is gripping. I'm sure there are some flaws in his facts, but these pale in comparison to his monumental achievement in this work.
I had a fair understanding of physics before starting the book and finished it better informed. At the same time, my admittedly weak knowledge of art history was more than supplemented. His explanation for the congruence he recounts is compelling, but he doesn't force it down the reader's throat. Rather, in a manner that is all too rare these days, Schlain presents the evidence, draws his conclusions and modestly leaves the reader to decide if the two match up. That I already subscribed to the explanation before I read the book may bias my opinion somewhat, but I must say that the conclusion is not the book's justification. Too many books are the opposite: They depend completely on the validity of thin insights and, so, end up padded with reams of extra pages drawing spurious connections to weak facts (apparently in the mistaken belief that repetition will bolster weak associations). By contrast, Schlain's conclusion appears as more of an afterthought.
Here, the central insight is in the parallels recounted, not the conclusions to be draw therefrom. And the book makes a solid case for the existence of these parallels, notwithstanding the odd factual error.
Read this book. You'll learn a lot, even if you're already familiar with one subject or the other, and your thinking about the world will be shaken up a bit.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars He gets the physics wrong! March 25, 1999
By A Customer
I can't believe the editors of this book let it get out the door. The physics is almost completely and in all ways wrong. Given that the author is neither an art historian nor a physicist, I can understand the attempt to use metaphor and generalisation in describing some of the very complicated matters of physics, but there is a difference between simplification and being completely, utterly, and in all ways wrong about the subject.
For example, in the attempt to compare the advent of Modernism, with its pictures built on greys and browns, to the development of Relativity, he gives a simplified vision of what a person moving near the speed of light would see. The problem is that he says a person moving at that speed would see all the colors start to muddle together into a grey/brown morass.
WRONG! And for at least three reasons. First, he is confusing the subtractive color model with the additive color model. When you pour paint together, you get a grey/brown mess because of impurities in the pigment. But that's because it's pigment. When you add all the colors of *light* together, you get WHITE. So, the man doesn't understand how color works.
Second, moving near the speed of light does not change the way light behaves. You will still see all the colors of the rainbow...they will have just shifted along the electromagnetic spectrum. Think of it this way: You have a window that's, say, 2 feet wide. You can only see things if they are directly outside the window (light in the visible spectra). The light that comes in on the far-left side is colored red. Next to it is orange, etc. to violet on the right.
But, there is more outside the window than what you can see through that limit (infrared, ultraviolet, radio, gamma, X, etc.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars genius author
I'll read anything this man writes. Although I enjoyed his later works more, this book is full of insights. He has a way of finding unity between seemingly divergent subjects.
Published 5 months ago by Sonam Palmo
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing the World in a New Way (LOVE this book)
I have lent this book out many times and I never seem to get it back. I purchased another copy not too long ago as I intend to give it another read since it's been so long since... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Julie Anne
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazzzzzzing and mind blowing
Ah the most thought provoking book an artist with substance can study. Must get for any intellectual geek who believes more then what they see.
Published 6 months ago by Brian
5.0 out of 5 stars Mindblowingly great read!
I had no idea until reading this book that art has presaged and participated in so many important scientific advances. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Hannah West
4.0 out of 5 stars Master of words
Leonard Shlain not only understands the human phenomenon that we are, I love his gesticulations, He takes the reader with method, clarity and brilliance of words, at least for... Read more
Published 12 months ago by E. H. Dailey
1.0 out of 5 stars 0 stars
This author poses a danger to those trying to learn about art or science. Sadly many reviewers credit him with at least a "shallow" knowledge of the basic facts upon which he... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Eric
5.0 out of 5 stars inspiring
this book changed the way i work as an artist. Shlain has wonderful insight and is exciting to read.
Published on September 1, 2010 by
1.0 out of 5 stars Grossly Incompetent.
Interesting read? Maybe. Not badly written. But it's so full of false "parallels" between art and physics concepts that, even with slight art training, and precious little... Read more
Published on May 10, 2010 by Philip L
5.0 out of 5 stars MUST READ
This literally exploded my understanding - not only of physics but of the interconnectedness of the brain, intuition, the universe. Read more
Published on May 1, 2008 by coastalkate
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Read
This is a wonderful book, a fantastic read. Those upset with Shlain and think his work twaddle don't appreciate the vision behind his words. Read more
Published on October 5, 2007 by Beau Smith
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