Saturday 1 January 2000

Science, Art and Play (1935)

From The Philosopher, Volume. XIII, 1935


By Erwin Schrödinger

Professor of Physics at the University of Berlin

2008 The Editor adds: At the time Erwin Schrödinger wrote this, he was living in Britain as 'Temporary Professor at the University of Oxford', having fled the Nazis. The paper in fact appeared the same year as chapter one of 'Science and the Human Temperament' published by Allen and Unwin. However, the Journal was doubtless pleased to be allowed a first taste of writings of the winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics....

With man, as with every other species, the primary aim of thought and action is to satisfy his needs and to preserve his life. Unless the conditions of life are excessively unfavourable, there remains a surplus force; and this is true even of animals. Even with animals, this surplus manifests itself in play: an animal when playing is conscious of the fact that its activity is not directed towards any aim or towards the satisfaction of the needs of life. A ball of wool interests and amuses the kitten, but it does not hope to find any hidden dainty within. The dog continues to roll the beslavered stone and his eyes implore us to throw it again: "Put an aim before me; I have none and would like to have one." With man the same surplus of force produces an intellectual play by the side of the physical play or sport. Instances of such intellectual play are games in the ordinary sense, like card games, board games, dominoes, or tiddles, and I should also count among them every kind of intellectual activity as well as Science* and if not the whole of Science, at any rate the advance guard of Science, by which I mean research work proper.

Play, art and science are the spheres of human activity where action and aim are not as a rule determined by the aims imposed by the necessities of life; and even in the exceptional instances where this is the case, the creative artist or the investigating scientist soon forgets this fact as indeed they must forget it if their work is to prosper. Generally, however, the aims are chosen freely by the artist or student himself, and are superfluous; it would cause no immediate harm if these aims were not pursued. What is operating here is a surplus force remaining at our disposal beyond the bare struggle for existence: art and science are thus luxuries like sport and play, a view more acceptable to the beliefs of former centuries than to the present age. It was a privilege of princes and flourishing republics to draw artists and scientists within their sphere, and to give them a living in exchange for an activity which yielded nothing save entertainment, interest and repute for the prince or the city. In every age such procedure has been regarded as a manifestation, of internal strength and health, and the rulers and peoples have been envied who could afford to indulge in this noble luxury, this source of pure and lofty pleasure.

If this view is accepted we are compelled to see the chief and lofty aim of science today as in every other age, in the fact that it enhances the general joy of living. It is the duty of a teacher of science to impart to his listeners knowledge which will prove useful in their professions; but it should also be his intense desire to do it in such a way as to cause them pleasure. It should cause him at least as much satisfaction to speak before an audience of working men who have taken an hour off their leisure time in the hope of obtaining an intellectual joy as to speak before the engineers of an industrial undertaking who may be supposed to be chiefly concerned with the practical exploitation of the most recent results of scientific investigation. I need not here speak of the quality of the pleasures derived from pure knowledge: those who have experienced it will know that it contains a strong aesthetic element and is closely related to that derived from the contemplation of a work of art. Those who have never experienced it cannot understand it; but that is no reason why they should "withdraw weeping from our community", since it may be supposed that they find compensation elsewhere within the sphere of art as, for example, in the free and vigourous exercise of a well trained body in sport, play or dance.

Speaking generally, we may say that all this belongs to the same category to the free unfolding of noble powers which remain available, beyond purely utilitarian activities, to cause pleasure to the individual and to others. f It might be objected that after all there is a considerable difference between scientific and artistic, and even more between scientific and playful activity, the difference residing in the fact that scientific activity has a powerful influence on the practical shaping of life and the satisfaction of its needs. It might be said that it has eminently contributed to material well-being and that the doctor's and the engineer's skill and the judge's and statesmen's wisdom are the fruits it bears; and it may be urged that, on a serious view, these fruits in which the whole of mankind can share are of a higher value than the pleasures of study and discovery, which are open to a few privileged men and their listeners and readers.

It might, on the other hand, be felt that the equation of these pleasures with art is slightly arrogant. Moreover, are we seriously to regard the practical results of science as the acceptable by-products of learned leisure? Should not rather the joys of research be regarded as the pleasant accompaniment of a work which in itself, so far from being playful, is entirely grave and devoted to practical aims?

Judgements of value are problematical. There can be no discussion as to the thanks due by mankind to modern surgery, and to the men who have combat-ted epidemic diseases. Yet it should not be forgotten that the advances of surgery were an antidote desperately needed against the advances of applied science, which would be almost unbearable without the relief provided by the surgeon's ready hand. I do not wish to speak ill of the advances of applied science; indeed it seems to me that one of the chief claims to fame of modern applied science is that it disregards material welfare and personal security and promotes and even creates purely intellectual values which exist for their own sake and not for any given material purpose.

I have here in mind chiefly, because this seems to me to be the most important point, the overcoming of distances in order to promote communication and understanding. I admit that this overcoming of distances has its material aspects. A merchant in Hamburg can reach New York in four days; he learns the exchange quotations daily on board by wireless, can give instructions to his office, and so on. But are we, mankind in general, really interested so very much in the rapidity of business transactions? I venture to deny it. What we really have at heart is something very different. What really gives us pleasure is something very different: far more people than formerly can visit different countries; the nations are brought nearer to each other, can appreciate each other's civilisation, and learn to understand each other. Daring men can penetrate into the polar ice without our being compelled to feel anxiety during months and years; for we receive signals from them, we know where they are, and we can render them assistance.

Last, not least, the pure technical pleasure of overcoming difficulties, the pleasure of succeeding, apart from practical advantages, is continually winning a greater place, not only in the minds of those immediately concerned, for these probably experienced it at all times, but also in the minds of entire peoples. The Zeppelin and the Blue Ribbon of the Atlantic obtained for Germany a reputation kindred to that obtained by Walther, Tasso, and Ariosto for the courts where they wrote their poetry. These and similar considerations lead to the conviction that science with all its consequences is not such a desperately serious affair and that, all things considered, it contributes less to material well-being than is generally assumed, while it contributes more than is generally assumed to purely ideal pleasures.

True, its effect on the multitude is generally indirect and the occasions are rare when science can give joy to the many by laying before it its immediate results: indeed, this happens only in those cases where it lays before the community a work of art.

At any rate those who have stood with bated breath and trembling knees before the two thousand years' old dream of beauty created of white marble which the industry of archaeologists has erected in the Berlin Museum will consider that at least as far as the science of archaeology is concerned the question as to why it is being pursued has been answered. As a rule the way to the masses is long and less direct and in certain rare cases it may appear as though a complete barrier existed. However, we would ask that the right to exist should be acknowledged even for these distant blossoms on the Tree of Knowledge; our reason being that they must first fertilise each other in order that other branches shall be able to bear such obvious fruits, palpable to the entire community, as the Graf Zeppelin 1 or the Pergamos Altar.

From a certain standpoint, indeed, the number of individuals sharing in a given cultural achievement is really irrelevant. The truth is that arithmetic cannot be applied to matters of the mind any more than to any other manifestation of life: multiplication here becomes impossible. Once a thought has flashed in the thinker's brain it is in existence and is not increased in value by the fact that a hundred other brains follow it. This argument is correct; yet the fact must be remembered that we are not dealing with a single achievement of civilisation or a single sphere of ideas, but with a multiplicity; and for this reason it is desirable even from the purely esoteric and scientific point of view that the approaches to these intellectual treasures should be facilitated and thrown open to the greatest possible number of persons, even if they partake of them less completely than the "initiated". In this manner there is an increasing chance that a number of cultural values may become the property, in favourable circumstances, of one individual; and this amounts to a real "multiplication" of cultural values, and indeed to more than that. When thoughts fructify they lead to new and undreamed of developments.

It is sometimes said that physics is today in a stage of transformation and revolution; a stage described by some as a crisis. Such a stage is one of abnormal activity and of enhanced vital power. Linguistically the expression 'crisis' (the Greek Kpivis equals 'decision') is appropriate; yet it is misleading if it suggests anything resembling a crisis in a business undertaking, a cabinet, or in the course of a disease. In these cases we are thinking of a dangerous stage of decision followed by complete collapse; whereas in science we mean that new facts or ideas have occurred which compel us to take up a definitive position in questions which had hitherto been open or, more frequently, had never passed beyond a kind of vague awareness. It is precisely our desire to be compelled to take up a definitive position; and in the exact sciences such a compulsion is frequently enough brought about deliberately by so-called crucial experiments. The more important the issue happens to be, the 'worse' the 'crisis' will be; and the more certainly will it lead to an extension and illumination of our scientific knowledge.

I admit that the critical stage itself bears a certain similarity to the feverish stages of an illness, which is due to the sudden upsetting of opinions which had hitherto been regarded as secure; a learned delirium is no rarity. But the comparison is invalid unless we add that in the case of science the disease guarantees the patient a freer, happier, and more intensive life on his recovery. To infer from the crisis in individual sciences that there is such a thing as a general twilight of science is a mistake resting upon a confusion of words.

But though we have grasped that this critical stage is not abnormal, and still less is any harbinger of disaster, we are still faced by the question why it is that the transvaluation of all values, which is really a permanent phenomenon, has taken such an acute form not in one science, but in many, and perhaps in most. Such is the case in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and psychology. Can this be an accident?

In experimental science facts of the greatest importance are rarely discovered accidentally: more frequently new ideas point the way towards them. The ideas which form the background of the individual sciences have an internal inter connection, but they are also firmly connected with each other and with the ideas of the age in a far more primitive manner. This inter connection consists in the simple fact that a far from negligible and steadily growing percentage of the men who devote themselves to scientific studies are also human beings who share in the general world of ideas of the age.

The influence of these ideas can often be traced into unexpected ramifications. Thus some years ago astronomy was threatened with a kind of arteriosclerosis due to the fact that no crisis was on the horizon; and it was saved from this phenomenon of old age, not so much by the perfection of its instruments and by the progress made by physics in the interpretation of astral spectra, as by a new and a wholly independent idea. It was suggested that really new discoveries could be reached not by careful study of individual stars, but by comparative statistics applied to vast groups of stars. This idea, which is so clearly connected with other tendencies of the times, has opened up vast new tracts and has extended our apprehension of space almost to infinity.

Our age is possessed by a strong urge towards the criticism of traditional customs and opinions. A new spirit is arising which is unwilling to accept anything on authority, which does not so much permit as demand independent, rational thought on every subject, and which refrains from hampering any attack based upon such thought, even though it be directed against things which formerly were considered to be as sacrosanct as you please. In my opinion this spirit is the common cause underlying the crisis of every science today. Its results can only be advantageous: no scientific structure falls entirely into ruin: what is worth preserving preserves itself and requires no protection.

In my opinion this is true not only of science: it is of a far more universal application. There is never any need to oppose the assaults of the spirit of the age: that which is fit to live will successfully resist.


Schrödinger adds: Had this essay been primarily written for English readers, another example would very probably have been chosen instead of the 'Zep'. But since it stands, let us take it at the same time as an impressive instance of how the latest and most outstanding achievements of science often fail to augment material welfare

* The word 'Science' is here usually the translation of Wissenschaft, which includes literature, archaeology, philology, history, etc.

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