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This review is a cross comparative exploration between Professor Tom McLeish’s ‘The Poetry and Music of Science, Comparing Creativity in Science and Art (2019)’ and a conversation hosted at the Serpentine Gallery between Marcus du Sautoy and Hans Obrist Ulrich, on Marcus’ book ‘The Creativity Code’ earlier this year.

Tom McLeish’s book begins with genuine accounts of scientists striving and arriving through a creative process at a scientific understanding. McLeish aligns this methodology with that of the arts. The theoretical physicist is entirely supportive of the arts as an imaginative process. He writes, “To engage in art by creation or reception and re-creation is to exercise one of the capacities that makes us human. Indeed, the academic study of art’s products and process falls under the class of disciplines we call the ‘humanities’”.

One of McLeish’s greatest concerns, however, is the question as to whether to judge our children to be either “on the science side or the arts side [...] and then to make exclusive education decisions based on such dualistic assumption will be to trigger a process of atrophy in one or other aspect of those children’s development’’.

As a painter, my favourite chapter of the book and personally a must read is ‘Seeing the Unseen’. McLeish discusses notions of optics which to a scientist are probably commonplace but to an artist this cross-pollination of information is fascinating. Sub-headings such as ‘Mathematical theory – painting’ does not discuss the well-worn paths of Fibonacci sequences but instead looks at the mindset of ‘the mathematician’ vs ‘the artist’. McLeish writes ‘To listen to, and especially to watch the construction of models from the palette of mathematical ingredients draws comparisons with the making of preparatory sketches of paintings. [...] Both draw on an established visual heuristic.”

This leads me neatly onto the mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy’s evening in conversation with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Marcus du Sautoy’s approach to the arts is quite different; as a scientist, du Sautoy essentially exploits the notion of aura.

In the most animated part of the conversation the audience were invited to conduct a poll via their mobiles.Two images were shown on a screen – one after the other – one was an original Rembrandt and the other a Rembrandt created from data. A mobile phone poll app was used to ask the audience which one was fake and which one was the original – this same process was then used for music and poetry. Then a percentage of the audience were made to feel mocked by the fact that a piece of AI had developed one of the paintings, pieces of music, or poems and the other was the real thing.

Something that seemed to be absent was the conversation regarding the mindset of the programmer – exploring who is doing the programming and who the programming is for? The programmer and the program – the algorithm is not a dead set of mathematical digits but a creation from the heart and minds of programmers. This ethics or ‘visual heuristic’ was not discussed. One of the essential take-aways of the talk was the concept of ‘program or be programmed.’ As du Sautoy said; “We are being programmed!”


As a result of this talk, I invited Marcus du Sautoy to discuss his understanding of creativity with Tom McLeish where I also challenged them both on the ethics of technology. A recording of this discussion can be found on Youtube under the name Art With Science and Creativity.

Find the video at

Can algorithms, artificial intelligence and machines be truly creative? Is human creativity necessary for scientific progress? Join Marcus de Sautoy OBE FRS, Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, and Tom McLeish FRS, Chair for Natural Philosophy at York University, in a conversation facilitated by artist Degard FRSA for Rawthmells, the RSA's 21st century enlightenment coffeehouse.

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