01 February 2007

Playful Exploration

Soft-Boiled Eggs and Water Rat Science

After earning degrees in biology and science education, I began doctoral studies in cognitive psychology at Yeshiva University, which I soon left to study painting at the Art Students League with Will Barnet. I returned to my doctoral studies at New York University where art department chairman Howard Conant, had the daring to facilitate my earning an interdisciplinary degree in art, science, and psychology, rare four decades ago. My 1969 doctoral dissertation, A Unitary Model of Aesthetic Experience in Art and Science, was based on the analysis of my interviews of scientists (Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences) and prominent artists who described their creative processes to me. One of the artists I interviewed was my former teacher Will Barnet who identified stages in his creative process.

"There are three stages that I sort of go through: First, I have a gnawing feeling that I want to do something, but I don’t know what it is at that moment. And then the second one is where I became aware of what I want to do, but I have not yet found the right way of doing it. And then the third is when I begin to find real relationships and I begin to function to put things together. In other words, the concept comes together. But these are all mixed up with ideas of seeing something, feeling something, and then facing the white canvas. Doing all these things together. Synthesizing."

When I asked him to describe the process of his involvement in making a painting, he chose to talk about a five-year process that culminated in his painting Soft-Boiled Eggs. After having spent years making drawings and small paintings documenting his children’s activities around the house, he decided to make a major painting of his son’s birthday party. “I had no clue at that moment as to just how I would handle it or how I would relate to it. I was still in what I call a fragmentary state.” He made many drawings developing alternative ideas, most of which were unsuccessful. Finally the ideas began to clarify themselves for him.

“To describe this picture there are three boys clustered around a woman, the mother. She’s behind the table. One son’s behind the table. One’s underneath the table and one’s on the left side of the table, standing on a ball in the final picture.” Barnet described the many difficulties getting the figures to work with each other and in relationship to the table and the background. He felt emotionally elated when he finally resolved the relationships between the figures and their environment and experienced the wonderful feeling that the whole painting was coming together. To finish the painting, he only had to paint the birthday cake on the table. But the cake didn’t fit on the table. A single big circle placed in the center of the picture would ruin the delicate balance that he had created in the painting after months of hard work. He became very unhappy about it and put the painting away for a few weeks.

"Then, I came early one morning for breakfast. My wife had put a lot of soft-boiled eggs on the table, sort of arbitrarily. When I saw those eggs, I said to myself, 'My God, that’s the solution!' Because the eggs would not interfere with the horizontal movement of the table, they would become part of that whole plane. Then, the picture began to resolve itself. I still had the young child celebrating the birthday cake. He was celebrating soft-boiled eggs or celebrating anything – sort of universal. He was celebrating, period. It was no longer illustrative. Then, the painting became a painting and the story wasn’t as important as the painting. But the story was still there.”

After my meeting with Will Barnet at Cooper Union, I drove up to Columbia University's Lamont Geological Observatory to interview Maurice Ewing, America’s foremost geophysicist, the first recipient of the Vetlesen Prize that honors leaders in the earth sciences the way scientists in other fields are honored with Nobel Prizes. While he was talking to me, he moved through a labyrinth of paper pillars composed of stacks of charts, heaps of data records, and piles of scientific papers. When not pulling graphs for me to see from these pillars and checking ticker-tape communication from his research ships, he sat at a desk cluttered with mementos of his far-flung journeys while his aging dog sat at his feet.

Ewing had been studying relationships between ocean waves and the waves in the ground under the ocean by making explosions in the water and measuring the results with seismographs. He dreamed about exploring these relationships at the global level rather than at the local level. Ewing had no idea how to do it since there was no way he could make explosions great enough to shake the whole planet. The solution popped into his consciousness from his childhood memories. He recalled a story he had read in his fourth-grade reader about the great eruption of the volcano Krakatoa and suddenly realized that such an enormous explosion had actually occurred naturally. The eruption of a volcanic island between Sumatra and Java in 1883 made sea waves fifty feet high and killed nearly forty thousand Javanese. If he could have been there then and known in advance that such a massive explosion would occur, he thought, he would have placed tide gauges, seismographs, and barometers strategically around our planet. He could then have measured the waves in the ocean, waves in the ground under the water, and waves in the air above and established mathematical relationships between them on a global scale.

On a shelf in his laboratory, he had an old book, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena, published in 1888 by the Royal Society of Great Britain. When he looked in this book, he realized that all the information he needed was there. It was fortuitous that the eruption occurred when Venus was eclipsed by the moon. Scientists throughout the world had placed tide-gauges to measure the effect of the transit of Venus on the oceans. They knew that the alignment of the moon and Venus would cause extra-high tides. Ewing enthusiastically explained the beauty and simplicity of integrating information recorded by different people seventy years earlier into a unified theory of resonant coupling. “It was possible in that one night to move into the study of surface waves, to understand it fully, to write the classic paper on it, to type it up, to put it in the mail. All in one night! Well my friend, that is living. I don’t know any thrill that anybody can have that will compare with that. Do you?”

When the first computer plotter became available in 1965, I began creating vector drawings at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences that I transformed into sensuous encaustic paintings. One of these early high tech/high touch artworks exploring the physics of noise control was reproduced as the cover of International Science and Technology (April 1966).

Working with nuclear physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratories, I created a series of paintings exploring the paths of subatomic particles moving in a bubble chamber. My representation of motion of subatomic particles developed into presentations of motion in real space-time through my kinetic participatory “Multiform” artworks. Spectators became active collaborators in creating the artwork by manipulating knobs to reveal different colored surfaces of multifaceted prisms. In 1967, I had a solo exhibition, Multiform of 531,441 Paintings, at the Art Gallery of Adelphi Suffolk College on Long Island.

During the ten years between my master’s degree and doctorate, I earned my living as a science educator while studying painting at the Art Students League and NYU. I worked on Long Island as science teacher at Louis Pasteur Junior High School in Little Neck, science supervisor of the Manhasset Public Schools, and assistant professor of science education at Adelphi University. I directed one of ten test centers for American Association for the Advancement of Science curriculum project, Science: A Process Approach, funded by the National Science Foundation. My papers on scientific inquiry were published in School Science and Mathematics (1962) and in Biosciences: Journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (1969). My paper, “The Binary System and Computers,” appeared in the National Science Teachers Association journal, Science and Children (1964). I developed educational materials for the American Iron and Steel Institute, American Chemical Society, and the Leukemia Society of America. At the 1967 American Film Festival, I won the award for art direction for my film on leukemia.

Perhaps the most significant events at this time were my marrying my wonderful Miriam, experiencing the birth our first three children, and participating in their early childhood explorations. We realized that opportunities for them to experience the awesome immersion that I had enjoyed in my childhood would come through their playful explorations. I set up opportunities for them to play with everyday things around our house that became equipment and materials for simple scientific experiments. Seeing their enthusiasm and joy engaged in these playful explorations prompted me to share them with parents of other young children. I wrote them up as my monthly “Science Fun” feature in Humpty Dumpty Magazine for Little Children that appeared for several years leading to Prentice-Hall publishing my best-selling children’s books of hands-on science experiments for exploring the senses, Sound Science (1969) and Light and Sight (1970). I created an androgynous outer-space-looking creature who invites children on a playful romp to discover how their senses of sight and hearing reveal the secrets of light and sound. My daughter Iyrit named the creature a “Gloop.” The jacket flap copy for Light and Sight reads: “If you would like to work and learn as a scientist does, then follow the Gloop through Light and Sight. Have you ever wondered why you look so funny when you see yourself in the fender of a car? Or, why some shadows are large and some are small? You can find out about the world of light and sight from mirrors, water, light bulbs, or even your mother’s cookie sheet.”

The intrinsic reward from being immersed in the open-ended process of playful exploration was beautifully expressed by philosophy of science professor David Hawkins in his talk “Messing About in Science” at a meeting I attended at AAAS headquarters in Washington for directors of Science: A Process Approach test centers. He quoted from the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leaned forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily, “messing – about – in – messing – about in boats – or with boats…. In or out of ‘em it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy and never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do.”

As editor of The American Biology Teacher issue on educating young children, I quoted the Water Rat’s words in my paper, “Biology Education in the Elementary School: The First Task and Central Purpose.” My decade of work in awakening in children the sense of joy and excitement in the scientist’s ways of asking questions and seeking answers to them has colored my subsequent work as an art educator. In teaching artists, I continue to emphasize the Water Rat’s philosophy of playful exploration as a vital route to meaningful learning and creative expression. Scientist Jacob Bronowski in his book, Science and Human Values, compares the creative activities of artists and scientists to the play of children and young animals.

"In science and in the arts the sense of freedom which the creative man feels in his work derives from what I call the poetic element: the uninhibited activity of exploring the medium for its own sake, and discovering as if in play what can be done with it. The word play is in place here, for the play of young animals is of this kind – an undirected adventure in which they nose into and fill out their own abilities, free from the later compulsions of need and environment. Man plays and learns for a long time (he has a longer childhood) and he goes on playing into adult life: in this sense of free discovery, pure science is (like art) a form of play."

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