The air was clear and warm. No artificial lights anywhere. The moon was lingering lazy in the trees across the river. Some fireflies were having a good time, switching their glow on and off rather randomly - in one group they seemed to synchronize but then it was random again. It reappeared: a few bugs were flashing simultaneously at first ... it started to expand, it was getting more. A whole cloud of insects was flashing in tune. Are they doing this on purpose? Do they have a will to turn the light on and off? How do those fireflies communicate? And why? Do they communicate at all? My son pointed at a field of clouds that were passing the huge silhouette of the moon. Why was the moon sooooo big? Weren't there ripples in the cloud-structure? A very regular hatching. How do the clouds 'know' how to organize? Do the droplets communicate? We both were excited by the regularities. He said he will figure all that out when he grows up. I knew he felt the urge, the drive that I experience so often as a scientist: the delight of looking at the world in utter amazement and the heartbeat when something appears not completely random. The moments when there appears to be a big hidden meaning of it all.
Another evening I was at an opening of a wild underground art show in Berlin. Electro-Music pressed into the sparsely lit room of the hopelessly overcrowded gallery, too many people were pushing, dancing. The humidity was high, the sound physically hurting - we immersed in the crowd. The backdrop of the DJ was a fast, intense, complex video - the central piece of the exhibition. It hammered a coded message. The code was to be unlocked in each and every one of us.
What a contrast to the morning when I was reading 'The conductor' by Sarah Quigley while listening to Shostakovich's seventh symphony! My heart beating rapidly, my mind wandering; carried away by the images and emotions of the story and the emotions of the music.
What do these scences have in common? In all of them the interaction between the individual and the world is sensual at first. Some sight, some sound, the smell, the heat ... they trigger strong emotional reactions that clearly lie in the deep archaic parts of our brain. But then curiosity sets in: what is the meaning of all this? Is there pure randomness? Is there a structure? This accounts for the richness of those experiences: they span from the almost vegetative reaction of the body and mind to the sensory experience all the way to the curiosity-driven structure-seeking questioning and delight of the almost inquisitory analytic brain. No doubt does the symphony or the piece of art trigger emotional reactions (of most diverse kind, depending on circumstances, experiences, mood...) - but the access can be much more: a musician can understand the harmonic intricacies of the work, can smile about some tricks of the master. A historian will point at the political influence on the composer that can even be seen and felt in the score of his masterpieces. The VJ implanted some messages of recent sociological debate into her visual stream.
The gratification of approaching the world on both levels - the immediate, vegetative and the inquisitory, analytical - is much higher than it would be if one of the sides was excluded.
It would do the piece of art no justice if it was only to be perceived 'vegetatively', as a simple 'wow' - neither would nature be fully enjoyed this way. And of course it would be a pale, wrong caricature of science if only the analytic part would be emphasized.
But seeking the sensory, vegetative approach to science too often results in crippled, touchy-feely science-babble instead of emphasizing the deep emotional impact of the omnipresent human curiosity, the desire to find structures in the chaos and the sometimes fiery emotions related to that.
Reducing art, nature, even emotion to a purely vegetative phenomenon is as wrong as reducing science to cold (de-)constructivism. The origin is a clear misunderstanding: the immediate, sensory reaction, the vegetative interaction alone is too often perceived to be equivalent to emotion. But those deep, original, archaic and fundamental reactions of the human species are enriched by the ability to derive additional emotional pleasure (and distress) from the curiosity and analytic desire of the active, conscious brain.
(see also "Wissenschaft ist keine Kunst" (in german) by Daniel Rapoport and me in Gegenworte - and look at the longer post on "the divergence of thought" by Chris Jones)