physics is a highly abstract discipline. Mathematics is its language,
logic its method. But theoretical physicists are human, too, and
our brains tire from the effort of thinking about things that hover
on the edge of inconceivability. And so, to relieve the mental
strain, we sometimes attach concrete images to the technical terms
and mathematical symbols of our craft. Thus I think of electrons
as fuzzy yellow tennis balls, of trajectories of photons as undulating
blue lines, and of quarks as colored glass marbles. Our images,
like those of painters, are derived from the simple things we see
in the world around us. That isn't really surprising, for physics,
like all creative endeavors, engages the imagination, and the word
"imagination" comes, not by coincidence, from "image."
conjures up images and, conversely, images stimulate thoughts about
physics. The paintings of Ronald Davis are especially inviting
to this kind of meditation because they display just the right
blend of realism and abstraction. In particular, it seems to me
that Davis's work can be seen as a metaphor for the way theoretical
physicists think about the world. To learn about the workings of
a physicist's mind, without having to delve into the actual theories,
we can do no better than to turn to Albert Einstein, who recorded
some of his profound insights into his own mental processes. Davis's
work, through its imagery, helps us to get a glimpse of the great
physicist's thinking. At the same time, Einstein's way of seeing
the world illuminates Davis's art.
was primarily a visual thinker. He rarely thought in words at all,
and mathematics did not come naturally to him-he used it only to
the extent that he had to. The special theory of relativity, for
example, is couched in terms of high school algebra, while the
later, much more sophisticated theory of gravity requires a formalism
that took Einstein ten arduous years to learn. The basic objects
of his thinking were visual images. Gerald Holton, in an essay
entitled "On Trying to Understand Scientific Genius," quotes Einstein's
own description of his mental activity in words that apply equally
well to Davis's work:
precisely, is "thinking"? When, upon reception of sense-impressions,
memorypictures emerge, that is not yet "thinking." And when
such pictures form a series, each member of which calls forth
another, this too is not yet "thinking." But when a certain
image turns up in many such series, then-precisely by its return-it
becomes an ordering element--a concept.... It is by no means
necessary that a concept must be connected with a recognizable
sign or word.... All our thinking is of this nature of a free
play with concepts.
elsewhere Einstein elaborates:
combinatory play seems to be the essential feature of productive
thought before there is any connection with logical construction
in words or other kinds of signs (such as mathematical symbols)
which can be communicated to others. The elements mentioned
above are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type.
Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously
only in a secondary stage, when the associative play is sufficiently
term "play" occurs often in Einstein's writings about the creative
process. He played with concepts the way a dog worries a bone and
the way Davis plays with the visual possibilities inherent in an
arch or a box. But for both Einstein and Davis play is serious.
The intensity with which Einstein juggled the same sparse set of
concepts--elativity, symmetry, continuity, atomicity--for an entire
lifetime is echoed in the singleminded concentration with which
Davis explores his own set of themes. This may be play, but the
approach is not playful. Davis and Einstein look at the world with
childlike, eyes, but they are the eyes of grave and deeply thoughtful
play with concepts, for both men, is guided by a simple purpose:
to get it right. Einstein, when he formulated special relativity,
did not set out to revolutionize physics. All he had wanted to
do was reconcile a seemingly trivial inconsistency in classical
physics. As a teenager, he tried to imagine what he would see if
he rode along a beam of light at its own speed, and later he found
out that mechanics and optics gave different answers to the question.
It wasn't a very pressing problem but, as in everything else he
did, Einstein was deter mined to get it right. Davis, too, is concerned
with simple objects, and the seemingly inconsequential problems
they pose. Where do the lines meet? Is the shadow here a little
darker, or should it be lighter? How do the planes overlap? Are
they parallel, or not? These are questions that face all painters,
but because he concentrates on them more sharply, Davis has to
answer them more precisely And invariably he gets them right. Right,
not in the simplistic sense of verisimilitude, but by the more
exacting standards of artistic integrity. The cogency of Davis's
work reminds us of the ease with which Einstein's theory of 1905,
with the famous E = mc2, in spite of its strangeness,
convinced the majority of his colleagues that it must be right.
1970, 64 1/2 x 138 inches, polyester resin and fiberglas.
painted objects may be seen as metaphors for Einstein's images
or concepts. For the fiberglass pieces this relationship is straightforward.
As a child learning geometry, Einstein felt that "the objects with
which geometry deals seemed to be of no different type than the
objects of sensory perception, which can be seen and touched."
Euclid's constructions were, for Einstein, tangible objects. Yet
they are not simple objects that can be easily described in words.
Like Davis's objects, they are fine and subtle things in which
solidity and palpability compete with an essential ineffability.
One can imagine Einstein, as a boy, seeing the entire proof of
the Pythagorean theorem appear before his inward eye in the form
of Davis's Sawtooth (1970). It is the proof of the theorem,
not merely the statement, that so appears. The statement is a simple
fact, easily verbalized and memorized. The proof, on the other
hand, is an intricate process that requires active thinking: "First
you draw this auxiliary triangle, and then that one, and then you
notice their connection In looking at Sawtooth, your eye
and brain are similarly compelled into action, comparing, measuring,
visualizing hidden spatial relationships, jumping from three dimensions
to two and back again and, finally, with a sigh of satisfaction,
concluding that it is right. Just like the Pythagorean theorem.