Models: Between Science and Art, November 2007

Anonymous, Cabinet of Curiosities, late seventeenth century Oil on canvas, Florence, Opificio delle Pietre Dure

In April this year (2007) a conference entitled “Model: Between Art and Science” took place at the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem. The conference was initiated jointly by the Science Museum and the History and Theory Department, “Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem”. The current issue of the Protocols is devoted to this conference and the discussion of models. The idea of the model enfolds profound philosophical issues. In what follows we shall concern with a few of them.

Model and Cognitive Perception:

Do models help us to understand the world? Is thinking in terms of models an integral part of perception? Can the world be perceived without constructing artificial models of it? In the 18th century Kant claimed that there is a wide gap between reality as it is and reality as we perceive it, between ontology and epistemology. The perceived reality is a consequence of “modules” of perception. Is it possible that model is nothing more than a perception “module”? Can it be that there is a relation between our evolutionary development, and the existence of models as part of our perception?

Peter Hillman, the scientific director of the Science Museum in Jerusalem opens our discussion on this subject. In his brief paper Hillman discusses the construction of models of reality, or virtual reality in the organism’s brain, and the differences between various organisms in terms of the levels of abstraction that such models are capable of. The paper also mentions new scientific discoveries that bear out the thesis concerning the physiological existence of such models.

The Relation Between Model and Reality:

Around 1596, in his book Mystery of the Cosmos Kepler raised the idea that the solar system is based on geometrical principles. The planets’ orbits form perfect polyhedrons bounding and bounded by spheres. This geometric perfection was also related to a musical harmony. Later Kepler disavowed his theory, but the question he implicitly raised has always remained with us: What is the relation between beauty and perfection of the model, on the one hand, and physical reality, on the other hand? Can beauty and perfection bear testimony to reality?

Some 80 years before Kepler, Copernicus had seen in the perfection and beauty of his theory a proof of its truthfulness. The fact that by assuming that the earth revolves around the sun one can easily explain a variety of phenomena, testifies to the truth of such supposition. Therefore harmony, beauty and perfection are proofs of reality.

Contemporary science has produced numerous, such as the models of the atom, or the D.N.A. of Watson and Crick. What is the relation between such models and reality? Does the atom really look like a system of orbits, very much similar to a miniaturized solar system? Does the D.N.A look like a double helix wrapped around a core? Could it be that the only thing that the scientific model represents is the state of our understanding, and nothing more?

Almost all articles represented here explore the issue of the relation of the model to reality in natural sciences, in social domain, and in art. The paper by Shmuel Meiri of the Sappir Academic College, deals with models of dinosaurs. Representing extinct animals, the model helps us to “reconstruct” a reality we don’t have access to.
What can we conclude about reality from the evidence available to us, and what conclusions are impermissible? The paper by Yoram Bar of the Haifa University deals with map as a model, and model as manipulation designed to “tilt” the perception of reality in a desired direction.

Model as a Research Tool:

In the beginning of the 20th century several models for the atom were suggested: the raisin pie model of Thompson, the kernel model of Rutherford, and the half-classical half-quantum orbit model of Bohr. Does the plentitude of models further the evolution of scientific thought? Is history of scientific thought coeval with history of models? In other words, do we leap from model to model in evolutionary fashion in order to gain a better understanding of reality? When is one model exchanged for another? What happens when models cease to function as research tools and get transformed into cultural icons?

The paper by Felix Laub of the Weizmann Institute of Science explores models as research tools, the concept of animal-model, and models in science that became cultural icons.

On the Physicality of the Model and the Possibility of an Abstract and Transcendental Model:

In about 1930, the famous physicist Heizenberg made a surprising claim: all the “pictures”, as he called the prevailing models of the atom, prevent him from understanding what is really going on out there, and that he was satisfied with the mathematical formulae. In view of this claim, isn’t it preferable to abandon models in favor of pure mathematics alone? And if Heizenberg was right, is it possible to regard the mathematics itself as a model, more abstract to be sure, of the physical reality? Avshalom Elitzur's work presented here (as a slide show) discusses the subject of mathematics as an abstract model of reality, and, by the same token, the thorny issue of relations between mathematics and physics. How is it possible that mathematics, a human mental creation, turns out to be so good in describing the physis, or nature. Indeed, the mathematical formulae play the role of a model of reality. In the paper by Boaz Tamir of Bezalel the model becomes immanent and physical, while the “reality” is assumed to be more abstract, Platonistic, and mathematical. The paper of Dan Derai of Bezalel addresses models of thinking in moments of creation, and the reception of a new mathematical concept, which is more abstract than its predecessors.

On the Social Role of the Model:

The model has a social role too. Rudolf II's Wunderkammer (1583) was a micro-cosmos filled with models of reality. However, the models therein were not displayed only “for heaven’s sake”, but also to glorify the ruler, presenting him as a patron of science, his enlightened image to his subjects, and to enable scientists to work outside the university scholastic framework current at the time.

Similarly, the models presented at the technological exhibitions of the 19th century played many social roles, such demonstrating control of reality, connecting the private and the public domains, and work with leisure, privileging one side of reality over another, and more. Text by Elhanati of Bezalel, presented here, addresses those issues through the popularity of home-made models in the Mid-Victorian era.

Models in Art, Art as a Model:

The anthropologist Levi-Strauss claimed that (at least Western) art emphasizes the model as the principal mode of communication (compared to “primitive” art which privileges material), Conversion of an object or matter into art requires quantitative reduction (size, or a number of properties, for example), which, in turn makes it possible to perceive it “at a glance”, thus compensation for the loss inflicted by reduction. The artist, therefore, brings into existence something that is both abstract and real. The most exemplary form of art as a model is miniature, i.e. a miniaturized version, or a microcosm, which, according to Levi-Strauss possesses inherent aesthetic qualities. In addition to its existence as an aesthetic/art object, the miniaturized object often plays an important part as a “mock-up” for large-size works. This totalist perception of the model as an art work in its own right is brought into relief in the paper by Jerzy Michalowicz of Bezalel on the artist Mark Dion, who is portrayed as offering an “alternative” model of natural history museum.