A Scientist's Encounters with Novelty and Art: an interview with world-renowned scientist and author Lee Smolin

photo courtesy of NASA

So here we are, my first interview with a scientist. And Lee Smolin, no less. If you don’t know who he is, stop and google his name now.

Did you do it?

I did this while on my way to interview him. I had read all of his books and had invited him to my shows about Einstein and solar flares, but there it was on the internet – one of the four most famous and important writers of cosmology and physics for the general public. Right up there with Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

No pressure, Lucy. Pretend you didn’t read that and keep walking up to the front door of his house and ring that doorbell.

I am so glad I did.

Although Lee never describes a particular process he follows in his work, his reminiscences of encounters with artists and their processes are imbued with the creative spark. Not the spark of solution or answer, but the spark of origin, a thing that propels him into a deeper query. It pushes him to evolve from a hill climber to a valley crosser and vice versa – that will make sense later --  and to keep the tension of exploration adjusting and readjusting.

 photo of Lee Smolin courtesy of leesmolin.com

LUCY: Part of my journey into the intersection of art and science came from reading a scientist's description of the scientific process as four stages: Saturate, Incubate, Illuminate, Verify.

LEE: Hhmmmm.

LUCY: When I read that I instantly felt that’s what I do when I’m choreographing and dancing. I’ve tried to formalize the four stages into my creative process, I let them guide me when I launch into a new project.

LEE: I’ve never heard that description. What were those stages?

LUCY: Saturate, Incubate, Illuminate, Verify. I cannot remember who said it.

LEEE: I don’t think there is a scientific method, but that’s not a bad description.

LUCY: Maybe that’s an advantage science has over art: even if there isn't a set method, there’s an expectation you will formalize things into a quantifiable or defined process?

LEE: But that’s not the process of making science.

I’m going to tell you my one dance story.  A long time ago I was living in New York, I became enamoured of the Martha Graham Company. I saw her. She didn’t perform but she came out and took a bow. It was the late 80s or early 90s. And then I was in Argentina for a conference and I went to see the Graham company perform there. We ran into some of the principal dancers in the street and started chatting

We made a bet as to whether quantum mechanics or Martha Graham’s dances would last longer. Each of us betting on the other. Their view was that the dances were very fragile. And it requires people who have living knowledge to keep it alive. Even though there’s notation, they were very worried that when they retired the dances would be lost. They were the last generation who were trained by Martha Graham. The dances were going to disappear. We, on the other hand, were very hopeful that quantum mechanics would be super-ceded.

LUCY: And I guess quantum mechanics hasn’t really been super-ceded.

LEE: Unfortunately no. And I don’t know what the status of the Martha Graham company is.

LUCY: The company is struggling to find a way to keep going without becoming a museum company, just re-staging Graham's old works. There are dancers in their 60s and 70s who were trained by Martha who can pass on their knowledge to younger dancers, but there must be some kind diluting effect as it happens. The company wants to stay relevant, yet it bears the name of this woman who is an indelible historical mark on the development of modern dance in North America….

So to you....what drew you into physics?

LEE: I’ve told that story a few times.

LUCY: I’m sure. I apologize for asking again!

LEE: When I was in high school I was into rock and roll. I was a bad musician. My mother was a playwright and I was into writing too. I was very rebellious. We did some testing in grade 8 that said I wasn’t good enough to go into advanced math. But we had a friend who was a professor of mathematics, in Cincinnati and he arranged for me to do advanced math in the university and so I got to calculus very early and I had use of a computer when very few kids did. Now it’s universal but back then it was something to make a fuss over.

I wasn’t interested in it [math/science] as something to do. Then I met and heard a talk with Buckminster Fuller. My father had wanted to be an architect and saw he was speaking and my friend and I were in charge of a Speakers Program at the high school so I called the hotel he was staying at and left a message that if he wanted to speak at the high school he should call….I got called to the school office in second period. The principal told me I should pick him up at 2. So we went down and picked him. He just got in the car with a couple of kids.

The principal had called an assembly for the last period. Mr. Fuller came out looked around, went back stage and got a chair, put it on stage, went to the podium and put one microphone in each breast pocket, sat down, took out his hearing aid, took off his glasses, closed his eyes and talked for six hours.

Buckminster Fuller documentary

I got very inspired. And shortly after that I dropped out of high school. I started working with structures, with curved surfaces. And I applied for Hampshire College which was a small experimental school on the basis of my playing around with architecture They accepted me and then I got into designing curved surfaces, arbitrary surfaces, writing computer code to do structural confirmations of curved surfaces, dividing them up into triangles. Which is very ironic because the models we make for quantum space look like triangles, triangulated structures.

I was getting books from the public library, math books. All the books on curved surfaces had chapters on relativity. So I got a book of essays about Einstein. An essay by Einstein about why he went into physics… I just got this feeling that I could do this. Of course, I had never taken a physics course. I just got this feeling maybe, not maybe --just a calm feeling that I could.

He laid out what were for him the open problems at that time: quantum mechanics, beyond quantum mechanics and combine that with relativity. It’s like I got an assignment. And that’s what I’ve done ever since.

LUCY: Einstein is a touchstone for so many people in- and out-side of science. I started reading his works while finishing my history degree. I wound up making a dance about –in an abstract way -- about Einstein's thought experiments. I felt like you: like I got an assignment. Can you go on stage and do a thought experiment? Maybe the end result of this thought experiment will be that it feels different every time, the movements will link together differently….It opened up my way of making and performing dance.

Then I read his writings on peace and was extremely moved. I go back to his writing when I feel a little lost. Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Henry Miller.

LEE: That’s an interesting trio. Einstein, Miller, Russell…all pre-modern in a way. The last classics.

It’s interesting too that Einstein never got modern. People tried to get him to move forward but he wouldn’t. People are trying to figure out if he ever went to hear jazz. It would have been easy for him to have gone into New York and heard Coltrane or Monk.

LUCY: It would’ve been interesting to know his response to jazz.

LEE: There’s no evidence he ever attended any concerts.

LUCY: Jazz appeals to very analytical minds… a certain mathematical element to it?

LEE: Yes.

LUCY: A mind that can see the world in mathematics really can plug into the music.

LEE: One of the things [composer/musician/producer] Melvin Gibbs talked about was that for African-Americans who were mathematical there weren’t career paths into mathematics, science or engineering but they had career paths into jazz. So several of them like Coltrane, like Ornette Coleman, had very mathematical theories of harmony.
Melvin Gibbs in a vintage NYC performance, 1988

LUCY: I never thought about it that way before. But that makes a lot of sense.

LEE: Do you think Einstein on the Beach was a series of thought experiments?

LUCY: I would imagine so. It seems like Philip Glass would do something like that.

LEE: And the choreographer?

LUCY: Lucinda Childs? I don’t know. What I know of her, it seems she has a very analytical, mathematical and highly-structured mind, very intentional. I just saw her choreography for the opera Doctor Atomic about Robert Oppenheimer.

LEE: I didn’t know there was an opera about Oppenheimer!

          Canadian singer Gerald Finley in "Batter My Heart" from John Adams' Doctor Atomic

LUCY: Oh it’s beautiful. In the choreography the dancers are generally behind the action of the main characters, behind a veil, either literally or metaphorically. It took me a few scenes of thinking “Why are they so far back, just moving around?” and then I realized that they were moving as the atoms.

LEE: One of the dances in Einstein on the Beach has a dancer being a photon. In a kind of thought experiment about light.

LUCY: I suspect that was a choreographed version of a thought experiment but I don’t think the dancers themselves were undergoing a thought experiment as they were dancing. Probably the thought experiment was the choreographer’s creative process rather than the way the dancers approached performing it. Even Einstein on the Beach being such a phenomenon of epic performance. So well-known by so many people who don’t know about opera and new music…

LEE: Who composed the Oppenheimer opera?

LUCY: John Adams. It’s so beautiful.  How can you make an opera about Oppenheimer’s inner struggle with the Manhattan Project and make it interesting?

LEE: And you’d have to deal with….well...Oppenheimer’s a very problematic personality and he did a lot of damage. A lot of people got hurt. Not just the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

LUCY: It's a time and an issue that is still problematic and unresolved. It never will be resolved. It was a tricky time.

LEE: It was a complicated thing.

LUCY: Do you feel that you have a shape of a process that you go through? I’ll call it a creative process rather than separating artistic and scientific since they are both creative.

LEE: They’re both creative…Well, first of all I believe that novelty is real and that nature has the capacity to generate novel forms of matter, novel structures, novel patterns. Human beings have the capacity to invent novel ideas and novel explanations as an expression of the general capacity of nature to create novel forms. Novel means not anticipatable, not predictable from knowledge from the past.  That’s a very strong form of emergence.

So what’s the creative process? Any process which creates novelty. Art is a particularly refined, purified form of the invention of novelty. Science is less so. Science is the search for good explanations about the natural world and as such…I mean I know there is rigour in art and it is hard to do well. There’s progress and criticism, but science is demanding in a different way. Science has a very conservative element and a very radical element and they have to coexist in tension. A good scientist is conservative and a rebel as well.

Scientific process is very labour intensive, very emotional. Any breakthroughs you have in the understanding of something are surrounded by doubt and criticism and it’s very much back and forth.

I’m somebody who is relatively good at inventing new ideas and hypotheses, which is rare. Science gets by with 90% of scientists as incrementalists. They advance a given research paradigm incrementally.

LUCY: What do you mean by incrementalist in this context?

LEE: If knowledge is a landscape and better knowledge is a higher hill there are hill climbers who don’t know how to get down the other side. They are very good at climbing but get confused and don’t know what to do when they get to the top, so they tend to stay there and defend, making fun of people sitting on top of other hills. The minority of people are valley crossers.

That seems to be part of the dynamic that makes science successful: if we were all valley crossers it would collapse, if we were all hill climbers it would collapse.

And a good scientist has to be able to do both to some extent. Everyone has different balances, different amounts of tension.

LUCY: That’s a beautiful word, tension. Tension gets talked about a lot in theatre, not so much in dance. How to keep tension alive between movements, bodies. Not physical tension, more energetic. If there’s not enough tension, it leaves audiences caring a little less about what they are witnessing. A degree of risk or high-stakes is involved when there is tension.

LEE: I think the hill climbers and valley crossers exist in art too. But it’s inherent in many scientific fields. The tensions within oneself and also within the community of one particular discipline of science. That gets lost sometimes in the arts. We don’t have to be all radicals. We need the tensions within ourselves and amongst each other.

LUCY: In terms of science, art and more generally in our world. It wouldn’t work if we were all valley crossers.

So when I read your book Time Reborn. I cried during the last chapter of this book.

LEE: The epilogue.

LUCY: Yes. I would read the book in before going to sleep, in bed, and I'd roll over to my husband and say,  “Ok listen to this.” These are the conversations we have at night,  just before we fall asleep we get on to the nature of the universe and philosophy of the world. But when I read Time Reborn I was also reading Edward O. Wilson's books, encountering these different disciplines talking the same way about being responsible for the world. Saying this is how it’s possible for us to make changes that will make things better. It came out of left field – the turn of energy in your epilogue and when I got to the end it, it took my breath away.

LEE: Thank you. I’m glad because I coded very personal stuff in there. My first book Life in the Cosmos…I don’t know if you read it…

LUCY: Oh yes.

LEE: The epilogue in Time Reborn is a response to the epilogue of Life in the Cosmos. That entire epilogue was inspired by the remark of a friend, Paul Sinclair St. Moon, a Brazilian sculptor. We were at a party where I asked him what post modernism was…I think can quote him by heart:

“If the point of modernism was to burn down the old house of classicism then all post-modernism has been doing is playing with the charred little pieces that were left. Which is a very purile thing to be doing considering that winter is coming.”

LUCY: Whooooooooaaaaa.

LEE: That resonated with me somehow and on the subway home from that party, I wrote the epilogue. It came out in one thing, in a notebook on the subway.

So that book is partly an application of ideas from biology to evolutionary physics, but it was very much inspired by my interactions with artists, especially visual artists in New York in the 90s.

LUCY: It’s like there’s a post-modern vortex… it can suck people in. Steve Reich and Philip Glass – even their music creates an aural vortex.

LEE: I don’t know music really well, but I have had two experiences with Philip Glass – Einstein on the Beach and a solo dance performance in the 90s – I can’t remember the dancer. I liked dance but I never knew that much about it. It was a pretty formal dancer, intriguing and she came to the end and there was call for an encore and she came in front of the curtain, she said she’d like to do a piece she’d been working on…The curtain opened and there was a piano and sitting at it was Philip Glass.

His music is highly emotional. It’s highly structured and within that it was extremely expressive and probably a lot of lesser composers with the same structure made things that were not interesting, not expressive.

LUCY: There’s something about those two – Reich and Glass -- where they did it so well that it transcends its own formalism.

LEE: Yes. Do you know who that dancer might have been?

LUCY: It was probably Lucinda Childs, who choreographed Einstein on the Beach. Or Trisha Brown. Did you see Einstein on the Beach in Toronto recently?

LEE: Yes. I expected to hate it. [Director] Robert Wilson wanted to have a session of response from physicists at the Perimeter Institute. Dina, my wife, wanted to go because she’s connected with music, on the board of Array Music.  There was to be a session of commentary after the performance. I insisted on an aisle seat so I could leave, because I was sure I was going to hate it.

As soon as they started I was captivated.

choreography by Lucinda Childs from Philip Glass "Einstein on the Beach"

LUCY: Why did you think you would hate it?

LEE: Because it was post-modern and minimalist and 5 hours.

LUCY: Yeah, if you’re going to ask people to be there for 5 hours it better be good.

LEE: And no intermission. But there is the assumption that people will leave and come back. I did leave a little bit, but I was mostly there.

LUCY: Part of the reason I didn’t go to see it is because I thought there was no way I could sit still for 5 hours. I would need to go for a run and come back.

LEE: You could have! It would be interesting to know what you thought of the choreography.

LUCY: I would expect it was unrelenting. Her work starts and just goes, usually.

LEE: Also for the singers.

LUCY: I can’t imagine singing for 5 hours….I’ve had to dance that long, but singing? Although I guess if I trained for that kind of performance I would have strategies.

LEE: There are tricks I understand. We asked the performers, because the “words” are mostly nonsenses syllables and the time signatures change constantly. There are counting tricks that Glass developed for the singers. They said if you sing contemporary music you get used that kind of challenge.

LUCY: For dancers too. There’s that joke that dancers can only count to 8. But contemporary dancers have to switch all the time and so much of it we don’t even count anymore, so the sense of time is created by personal rhythm and proprioceptive devices, a collective experience of time.

So what are you working on now, do you have a new area?

LEE: I have one thing which is very risky – it’s the craziest thing I’ve done in a long time and it has to do with seeing if an effect of quantum gravity could explain something of what dark matter is. I can’t talk about it very much….but it’s addressing the failure of dark matter to explain everything that it’s supposed to explain.

LUCY: That feels like a frontier right now. I just read Lisa Randall’s book…

LEE: Her book about dark matter and the dinosaurs?

LUCY: Yes. I need to read a bit more because I have flashes of visceral understanding but I need to read more so that I can really wrap my brain around it. I get drawn to the edge of science to explain what we see and experience and I love the mystery that is out on that edge.

The reason I’ve been drawn into reading on cosmology etc., is because my parents used to get my sister and me up in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers. I grew up in a house where we never watched TV while eating unless it was the Muppet Show, National Geographic specials or Carl Sagan's Cosmos. My mum died when I was 15 and my dad when I was 22. I had just finished university, just finished my dance degree, about to launch into the world and not at all ready to be without parents. I spent the whole summer after my dad died reading The Origin of Species, the Voyage of the Beagle and every book by Carl Sagan that was in our house – we had all of them that had been written to that point. 

Reading about the natural laws of the universe helped me cope.

When I had my son a great deal of anxiety arose in me – worrying about my mortality and the future and time passing – and it is reading your books, and others like them, that helps me release from the anxiety of my little place in the universe.

LEE: That parental anxiety is what's coded into the epilogue of Time Reborn, without it saying so explicitly. That was a motivation.

LUCY: I can see for my son too, that touchstones for him with his anxiety is learning about the world.

LEE: Anything else you want to ask?

LUCY: So many things….but we should wrap it up. It’s wonderful to hear you speak. It’s very reassuring to hear people speak about their work. I like to know how people do what they do.

LEE: There’s more to say about that. It’s hard to have good ideas. They come in a moment…I like those four stages…what was the first? Saturate. Very good ideas they come in a moment. Cosmological natural selection came one day when I was sailing. I have a visual memory of that sail. I had a very good idea in the White Squirrel café…only time I went there. I don’t want to go back and jinx it. Bad ideas come just floating on the wind. Good ideas take an immersion in the problem.

Then you are responsible for it. It takes months, years, to turn an idea into a legitimate scientific hypothesis.

 Lucy Rupert in her work investigating Einstein's thought experiments 
"The speed of our vertigoes" photo by Jeremy Brace

LUCY: Ideas are all consuming. You don’t leave it on your desk at the end of an 8-hour day. It travels along inside you. Truly an embodied action.

Do you see it as a good thing that there seems to be a surge in popular interest in understanding the universe?

LEE: This might be a bit deflationary on that count: If you look behind it, there’s one person, a literary agent. Almost everybody you’ve mentioned, we share the same agent. He’s a great business man, a great storyteller and a person of great vision. John Brockman. His vision is something like this: there used to be a place in North American culture for public intellectuals: Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling etc....John’s analysis is that post-modernism focused the attention inward and intellectuals forgot how to communicate to the public at large. And that role now is empty. He proposes the third culture take up that space. Third culture is artists, scientists and the digerati together. He sought out us all out, people who had new ideas for books that could be written as though for our colleagues, but with the general public looking over their shoulders.

LUCY: I don’t think that’s deflationary at all. That one agent is bringing the mystery and the new ideas to the public. We need it. We need to share the mystery.

LEE: Well then let’s end there.

LUCY: Beautiful.


Lee's newest book  "Einstein's unfinished revolution: the search for what lies behind the quantum" will be published next spring. Stay tuned to blueceilingdancer.blogspot.com for more with Lee closer to his book's release! 


For more on Lucy Rupert's choreography and dancing check out her company's website:



Popular posts from this blog

Peter Chin: Cultivating a global view, building a dance centre

Adeene Denton: Astrohumanist

New York/Toronto Project: Jeanine Durning in her own precise words