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Art blog on creativity, art, science, Oppenheimer, not trying too hard, not overthinking

Art, Science & The Light From Prometheus’ Fire | Nancy Hillis, MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art, Science & The Light From Prometheus’ Fire


Last week we had a “city adventure,” making our way 75 miles north to the concrete canyons and spectacular views of San Francisco. We felt like Rip van Winkle, emerging blinking into the light after more than three years of COVID and general COVID-inspired caution.

We can understand why zombie movies usually take place in cities, much of the American populace has a fear of cities cultivated by decades of living in sanitized suburbia. It ruins the drama if zombies commute to work and mow the lawn. (even at night)



Standard issue urban zombies



But we weren’t in San Francisco to see a zombie film, we were there to see ‘Oppenheimer’ on the big screen of an IMAX theatre, supposedly the second largest in the US after the one in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  It did not disappoint.

After finding parking in a termite mound of a multi-story parking garage, we walked into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

There were fountains and waterfalls in abundance and a great green circle of lawn at the center, perhaps 200 feet (60m) in diameter. A group of mostly women were doing some sort of aerobics to disco music coming out of a portable sound system, led by an enthusiastic instructor on a stage at the bottom of the sloped lawn.



We could tell some sort of rhythmic movement was occurring, a vigorous workout and lots of fun. There are advantages to the anonymity of the big city.




After our free entertainment on the lawn, we made our way into the hushed cavern of the theatre, steeply raked seats in front of an enormous screen, perhaps five stories tall. The seats were like living room recliners, very comfortable. and with enough space for others to pass in front. The view was completely unobstructed. 

We had heard that the film was three hours long, and were wondering if there was going to be a half-hour of irrelevant trailers beforehand, car chases and explosions and action scenes with little concern for the laws of physics.

But no. The theatre got right to the task at hand, which was very much about the laws of physics.

We won’t give any spoilers here, as the movie was very powerful and complex and we highly recommend it.

There was very little wasted film, and the story hewed quite well to the book it was based on, American Prometheus by Bird and Sherwin. 

We knew it would be very moving for Bruce, as many of the characters in the film were in his physics textbooks and he even knew Robert Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, who started a hands-on experimental science museum called the Exploratorium on a shoestring using a run-down leftover building from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition, built to honor the opening of the Panama Canal.

The museum later went uptown and took over an entire pier on the waterfront, multiple stories of glass and concrete. 

Robert Oppenheimer was a very sophisticated scientist, not only a first-rate physicist but a lover of literature, language, art, and music. One scene in particular stood out.



J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) at Los Alamos, New Mexico



At one point before his involvement with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, Dr. Oppenheimer is invited to give a talk on nuclear astrophysics in the Netherlands.


Speaking Dutch


He stands at the podium, silent for several seconds. Then, after a deep breath, he launches into his seminar. In Dutch.

Later, a colleague asks him if he knew Dutch all along. Robert told him that had learned it in the six weeks he was in residence because he liked a challenge.

After we saw the scene, it reminded Bruce of experiences he had had before, both in the Netherlands and in Denmark.

Both Dutch and Danish have structural commonalities with German, which Bruce knows well, but are also significantly different, much more so than the contrast between British and American English or Mexican and Chilean Spanish. 

When traveling in those countries, Bruce discovered there was a trick to understanding what was being said. 


Not Trying Too Hard


You had to listen, but **not too much.**

He had never encountered this phenomenon before, where understanding could be augmented by taking in *less* information.

If he tried to focus on individual words rather than overall patterns, the understanding faded.

Bruce was reminded of this in the ten seconds of the movie where Cillian Murphy, the character playing Oppenheimer, started his seminar in Dutch. Since Bruce wasn’t expecting Dutch, he wasn’t prepared, and was therefore unfocused in that context.

He found it remarkably understandable!


Bounded Rationality


Years later, after Bruce left theoretical particle physics to study complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (which Oppenheimer started), he heard of a new concept from economists called “bounded rationality.”

In laymen’s terms it means that if you are trying to understand a system, your understanding should match the system’s complexity.

If you’re a finance person trying to understand a market, being more sophisticated in your market modeling than the forces that are driving the market is actually a disadvantage.

In statistics, it takes two parameters to draw a line through a two-dimensional cloud of data.

There’s a saying: “With 32 parameters, you can draw an elephant.”

Most data other than elephants are not fit by elephant curves, so this is usually overkill.


Elephant family on African savannah



Albert Einstein came at the same concept from the other direction, opining,


A model of the world should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.

-Albert Einstein


By the way, Einstein also figures in the movie.



Young Albert Einstein (1879-1955)


The Problem With Overthinking In Art & Life


The general idea here is the pitfalls of overthinking or under thinking something.

This applies particularly to art.


Licking The Paint


Going into an artwork and making endless tiny corrections, “licking the paint,” is rarely satisfying.

Like understanding an adjacent language to one you know, creating an artwork is about perceiving patterns and not getting bogged down by details. That can come later, or sometimes not at all.

Sweating the details before one even starts is probably a leading cause of artistic block.

Perhaps this is why Pablo Picasso said,


It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

-Pablo Picasso


Children tend not to overthink it.

One last observation about the movie:  Afterwards, we decided that the proprietors of the IMAX theatre had found a useful peacetime application of nuclear energy, namely powering the bodacious sound system that could blow the fur off of a cat, as exemplified in the reproduction of the shock wave of the first atomic explosion in New Mexico.

When the bomb went off, all was completely silent for about 30 seconds.

Bruce’s model of what was going on was accurate and appropriate, a quick physicist’s calculation involving the distance from the explosion and the speed of sound made him suspect what the film’s creators were up to, so he was ready. 


From my studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Want to go deeper? Get The Art Of The Possible Series.

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Nancy Painting on Blank Canvas





P.S.S. Leave your thoughts and comments below. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


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