Contemporanea International Art Magazine

April 1990

Designs On The Universe

by Eleanor Heartney

In his quest for a working model of the atom, sculptor and photographer Kenneth Snelson has offered to weld the disparate realms of art and science.

In Kenneth Snelson’s best-known work, sleek aluminum tubes thrust out into space, locked into tense configurations by lengths of taut steel cable. Snelson is also recognized for panoramic photographs of urban vistas whose unity, like that of the sculptures, consists of a carefully balanced harmony of distinct elements. Almost unknown to the art world, however, Snelson has also been laboring for almost thirty years on a third body of work which has taken him deeply into territory usually forbidden to artists. Since 1960, Snelson has been strugglingagainst the better judgment of both art and nuclear physics-to create a workable, physically tangible model of the atom. “Physicists think the galaxy belongs to them,” Snelson says. “I’ve read a lot of the books, and the answers I’ve come up with are different because I don’t think the answers that they have proposed have been very good.”

Snelson’s studio attests to the seriousness of his quest. Along with some models for his sculptures, it houses a Silicon Graphics computer equipped with Wavefront Technologies software that he bought in 1987 to create visual realizations of his model, and a collection of books, transcripts, and articles that would seem more at home on a physicist’s shelf than in an artist’s loft.

Until he acquired the computer, Snelson was always disappointed by his efforts to model the atom. Various examples of earlier efforts-odd little objects composed of disc magnets and plastic rings-are scattered throughout the studio. The computer, with its sophisticated graphics, has allowed him for the first time to translate his visions into aesthetically pleasing form. The atoms he models on the computer screen are strikingly beautiful, transparent globes laced through with iridescent rings. Often they exist within eerily postmodern, de Chiricoesque landscapes standing on neoclassical pedestals before strangely stratified crystalline mountains. “I think in terms of outdoor sculpture,” Snelson admits. “I wouldn’t know where else to put them.”

If Snelson were merely using physics as an inspiration for his own visual inventions, his project would be little different from the surrealists’ exploration of Jungian archetypes to express the workings of the unconscious, or Sol Lewitt’s preoccupation with mathematical logic as a source for highly systematized minimal forms. In fact, Snelson goes much further-into a noman’s-land that he calls “art-science, which receives little encouragement from either of its parents. Snelson believes that he has discovered a form for the atom that has scientific validity Indeed, he has had the temerity to argue that his model fits the experimental data better than any visual model produced by science and that his work refutes the quantum mechanical principle that no visual model of the atom is possible. In the process, he has managed to raise important questions about the interactions between art and science and between visual and mathematical thinking.

It is not easy to remember today that art and science were once nearly indistinguishable modes for exploring the world. Over the centuries, a chasm sprung up between the two that has traditionally kept the two fields separate and suspicious of each other. Recently, however, historians of science have come to admit that there is an aesthetic dimension both to the forms of the theories held to be true and to the mind’s ability to grasp abstract scientific principles. Scientists, faced with two equally plausible explanations of a set of phenomena, will invariably select the more “elegant” or “beautiful” over the more unruly on the theory that real ity is not wasteful. And throughout history, the scientific model has been acknowledged as a fundamental tool of physics and chemistry because it allows scientists to visualize processes and structures otherwise confirmable only in mathematical terms.

During the 1920s, all of that apparently changed. Developments in nuclear physics, and especially the formulation of quantum mechanics, seemed to suggest for the first time that the universe works in ways that we cannot conceptualize. The problem was formulated by Werner Heisenberg, whose Uncertainty Principle states that one can only describe an electron’s behavior mathematically, by a probability function-a cloud of possible locations. While this formulation satisfies experimental data, it is clearly of little use as a mental image.

This is where Snelson enters the picture. He believes that quanturn scientists have been too quick to dismiss the visual atom. He argues, “I agree that the uncertainty principle makes sense, but to say therefore that we should no longer ask these questions, that the atom has no structure because we can’t see it, is silly, If cosmologists took that attitude, we’d never have had any speculations about the big bang or the steady-state universe.”

Snelson’s model of the atom corrects what he believes to be a wrong turn taken by physicists in 1916. In order to account for atoms’ ability to bond with each other, the familiar model of the atom as a kind of mini solar system with electrons whizzing in circular orbits around the nucleus was replaced with a picture containing elliptical orbits, which allowed the electrons of different atoms to lock arms with each other when they approached their outermost points. Snelson believes that the contradictions which resulted from this reformulation eventually made it necessary to abandon visual models altogether, In his model, he restores the circular shape of the atom, but instead of setting his electrons revolving around the nucleus, he envisions them spinning in little rings along the atom’s surface like halos on the surface of a series of concentric globes. In addition, he acknowledges the dual wave-particle nature of the electron as described by quantum mechanics by suggesting that these rings are in fact “matter waves,” which cannot be penetrated by other electrons.

Snelson believes that his model solves a number of problems-how electrons bond, why atoms fall into an orderly sequence on the periodic table, why two electrons don’t collapse into each other. Scientists with whom he has discussed these matters, however, are less sanguine. Hans Christian von Baeyer, physics professor at the College of William and Mary~ has been carrying on a dialogue with Snelson about his atom for three years. Portions of a conversation between the two are included in the catalog for The Nature Of Structure, Snelson’s most recent show, which is currently up at the National Academy of Sciences in New York. When asked point-blank whether there is any scientific validity to Snelson’s model, von Baeyer replies, “As a description of atoms, no. But as an exploration of an interesting structure, yes.” According to von Baeyer, Snelson’s atom doesn’t really satisfy the mathematical requirements of the data, and it fails the litmus test of scientific utility: it cannot be used to make further predictions.

Nevertheless, von Baeyer believes that this is no reason for scientists to ignore Snelson’s formulation. He points out that, in numerous cases throughout the history of science, complex structures discovered by nonscientists were later found to exist in nature-one example he cites is Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, whose configurations have since appeared in the structures of certain molecules. He remarks, “I want to say to Ken, ‘I love your structures, I just wish you’d be more relaxed about where they might show up.”‘

Snelson has also shown his models to Robert Root-Bernstein, assistant professor of natural science and physiology at Michigan State University. RootBernstein suggests a further reason why Snelson’s model matters: “One must be able to imagine a possible world before one can test it.” Root Bernstein has just published a book about how scientists make discoveries; one of its chapters is devoted to the tools of thought, as he has discovered that scientists conceptualize problems in a large variety of ways. Some think primarily in visual terms-a notable example was Einstein-while others think verbally, aurally, even kinesthetically. Few, he believes, are really equipped for the kind of pure mathematical thinking required by quantum mechanics. “Some scientists manage to internalize the mathematics,” he says. “It becomes like a fluency in a foreign language. But for the kind of chemists who need to know what a molecule looks like, quantum mechanics isn’t very helpful.”

Support for the importance of visualization also comes from Gestalt psychology. Rudolf Arnheim, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of the importance of visual thinking, has argued in his numerous articles and books that all thinking is constructed via images, that even when thinking about the most abstract concepts, the mind will first make some kind of picture from which to work. Others have pointed to a metaphorical aspect of thought. Biologist Jacob Bronowski maintains that the creative processes of the scientist and the artist are essentially the same, that both are efforts to find “unity in variety,” and that the primary tool for this is a kind of poetic thinking. In his book Science and Human Values, Bronowski wrote that “science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a recreation of her. We re make nature by the act of discovery, in the poem or in the theorem.”

In fact, following the lead of Thomas Kuhn, science historians are increasingly convinced that revolutions in scientific thinking occur not as a result of a careful accumulation of evidence, but through mysterious, creative leaps that suddenly restructure the whole edifice of a body of knowledge. However, despite the small but growing chorus of voices on either side of the art-science divide pressing for closer communication, examples of genuine interaction between artists and scientists remain rare. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Kenneth Snelson’s thirty-year obsession is that it confronts ingrained assumptions about the absolute separation of art and science. In grappling with the meaning and value of his atom, one is forced to ask questions such as: How can science and art communicate? What is the nature of creative thought? Where do the thinking processes of artists and scientists converge, and where do they separate?

In the course of his dialogue with Snelson, von Baeyer has grappled with these questions, and as his answer he offers the following metaphor: “Imagine two boys-one a scientist, one an artist-walking down the street. They both get curious about something, and in the beginning their imaginations are identical. The Snelson atom, for instance, could have come from the dreaming brain of the scientist. As the two continue walking, however, they come to a wall; one goes to the right while the other goes to the left. That wall is mathematics. I make a completely mathematical description of the atom, and Ken doesn’t. Without knowing mathematics, he has spent thirty years building a scaffolding and trying to peek over that wall.” Although he believes that Snelson’s imaginings have not yielded a scientifically defensible model of the atom, von Baeyer continues to follow Snelson’s efforts with great interest. “That point where the two boys diverge is a fascinating place,” he says. “We have this running joke. I accuse him of playing god and he says, ‘I have to.’ I think that’s the difference between science and art. Science has to be reproducible, and art is absolutely not supposed to be.”

Whether his atom is ever fully embraced by the artistic or the scientific community, it is clear that Snelson has no plans to abandon his quest. “I feel that I’m a bridge that goes in a lot of different directions,” he says. “I’m exploring this strange new world called art-science.” Asked where his concerns place him within the art world, he gives a wry smile: “I’m either on the cutting edge, or the outer periphery.”