Nov 3, 2014

The Science of Art / The Art of Science

Math and Literature. What's the connection? What can writers learn from math?  Great literature and high math have more in common than they seem to. Their similarity centers on the creation of patterns, argues the author of the New Yorker article: "Why writers should learn math".

Note that it's the creation, not the detection, of patterns that matters. Anybody with a sophisticated software can detect patterns in data, however you choose to define data. Likewise in creative writing, anybody with attention to detail can represent and reflect back to readers some slice of reality, theirs (easier), or that of others (harder, it seems). That's not what math and literature are about. Not really.

"In literature, that big picture means you have to extrapolate to people who are not yourself, which can be a risk as great as the potential reward"

"Presently, we have become too enthralled by the notion of literature as Jackson Pollock action painting, the id flung with violence upon the canvas....The result can be a suffocating narcissism, a lack of interest in the kind of extrapolation and exploration that is necessary to both mathematics and literature".

On chess and literature: "Chess....too [like math]
 requires great intelligence, but it resolves nothing of the human condition. The same distinction exists in fiction, between the diverting and the serious, the trivial and the universal. In both cases, too, formulas are but guideposts that fall away the higher you climb. In the end, you are left alone with your own variables, your own private equations".
I wonder if the reverse has ever been discussed as persuasively: do scientists also need literary skills (beyond the ability to appreciate literature: eg., creative writing). What are the benefits of studying poetry, and even trying to write poetry, for scientists? 

A decade before this article came out I was taking classes in a major business school. Everybody was obsessively searching for ways to be more creative, come up with new ideas, new technologies, innovative businesses, innovative research in business etc. Prescriptions by faculty abounded and still do: read X on creativity, read Y on creative destruction, figure out how to creatively self-destruct your prior initiatives as a way of moving on to something even more creative. 
Good efforts, but the creative process still eludes many. What nobody ever mentioned, let alone suggested, was study poetry, read literature. No MBA of a standard major business school in the US will probably hear such a thing in their program: "take a poetry class", much as they are encouraged to take acting classes to improve their presentation skills. As a literature major, I found that comical to say the least. Can you really expect people to become creative by reading about it, rather than practicing creativity? By reading standardized business books about "creative destruction" and HBS cases, class after class, semester after semester? Really? I kept thinking, if I were to recommend something, that would be to take a poetry class or workshop. But then again, that's why no business school would ever hire me to make such prescriptions. Definitely not the ones I have attended. Or I might be just wrong.