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Los Angeles Time - October 1, 1991
Visionary Uses His Art in Brilliant Battel with Skeptics
By John Wilkes

When a Marin County surgeon discourses on art and physics, especially after cheerfully admitting that he taught himself nearly all he knows about both subjects, the reader can be forgiven for some initial skepticism.
But Leonard Shlain's "Art and Physics" is a tour de force. It is a brilliant, accessible and visionary look the most revolutionary artists and scientists from the golden Age of Greece to the present.

Shlain's thesis is that the most advanced visual artists have prophetically foreshadowed in their work all the key scientific discoveries later made by physicists. For example, Shlain argues that Giotto's introduction of mathematical perspective around 1300 created an intellectual climate that made possible Kepler's discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets 300 years later.

Shlain concedes that throughout this period, artists and physicists have paid scant attention to one another's work, but develops the idea that the most innovative artists nonetheless prepared the public's mind for expanded conceptions of reality.

Describing a modern example of this Zeitgeist, or "spirit of the age" effect, Shlain writes, "In 1907-1912 (just before Einstein published his first article on relativity theory) Pablo Picasso and George Braque carried Cezanne's insight about the relationship between space and mass to its logical extreme, creating in the process a whole new way to represent visual reality. Cubism fractured the mass of objects into pieces. Cubist artists rearranged these cracked shards so that they appear out of the linear sequence of time against a background of fractured Euclidean space.

Shlain painstakingly traces this indirect influence of art on physics throughout the history of Western civilization, touching on the work not only of painters and physicists but also of biologists, composers, poets, philosophers and novelists. Attempting to explain how the human imagination became a capable of conceiving such momentous systems as those described by Newton and Einstein, he also discusses human consciousness itself, particularly the neurological basis for the human brain's unique division into artistic "right brain" and logical "left brain" functions.

An exuberant stylist, Shlain presents his material as if he were lecturing college students, vividly mingling lucid explanations with colorful anecdotes. He emphasizes the human side of science and art, giving special emphasis to his chief hero, the scientist-artist Leonardo de Vinci. The painter of Mona Lisa, he relates in a rollicking capsule biography of Leonardo, was illegitimate and probably dyslexic, a clothes-conscious dandy and an incurable procrastinator who took years to finish a commissioned work.

Shlain uses his impressive ability to entertain in the service of a lofty purpose. Again and again, he tries to bring the reader to a direct, intense experience of the artistic creations and scientific discoveries, so that the reader not only understands the achievements but also feels their impact as fully as did the discoverers.

Giotto's discovery of perspective in painting, Newton's discovery of gravity, Picasso's fragmentation of space, Einstein's dream of riding a light beam at 186,000 miles per second - for Shlain these mental adventures and many others take on the emotional intensity of bungee jumping.

One of the most memorable intellectual thrills Shlain's book offers the reader is Einstein's discovery that time and space are not separate and absolute entities bit a single and variable phenomenon, which Shlain renders as "spacetime". To convey how it feels to experience Einstein's thought, which for the author is nothing less than the most profound event in the history of human consciousness, Shlain defers to fellow science popularizer Nigel Calder: "If you have not felt the ground move under your feet while contemplating his ideas, you have missed the frission of the century.

Art historians and physicists many find bones to pick with Shlain's interpretation of the historical record, but Shlain is, after all, a self-proclaimed amateur in the history of consciousness. He does it for love. And this reader, for one, loves what Shlain does.