As great scientists frankly admit what they owe artists, should the income gap between gifted arts and science workers be quite so wide?

Lucinda's rose LARGER June 2015 IMG_7530

— photograph by Lucinda


A virtuoso painter and craftswoman friend — prolific, courageous, stoical in degrees that sometimes defy belief — grew up among Californian country folk, on the margins of the Pacific, in high trees and curling mists a few miles south of a refuge for artists established by an autobiographer who wrote these lines:

… [W]hy did I collect art? Or even more pertinently, what is art? I answered this question in my play Phallacy …:

REGINA If the beauty of this sculpture is not important, what about art?

REX Define Art.

REGINA An image from the mirror of life.

REX (derisive) Good God!

REGINA: All right then. How about Art being everything other than what you see in the mirror?

REX Better! But how necessary is that?

REGINA Art is never necessary. It just happens to be indispensable.

For me, not as a collector but as a human being, art happens to be indispensable. Isn’t art what distinguishes us from all other species?

Those are words of the late Carl Djerassi, and the retreat, his well known Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Before he jumped tracks to write novels and plays in late middle age, he made his name — young — as a scientist of the same rank as the superstars in our last two entries on this blog (part 1  and part 2).

Lately, the reminders of him have been so frequent — and cheering — that some of the mystically inclined would offer them as certain proof of haunting.

Another reason why he swims into view, in an inner eye, is indirect. We often think of him when we hear from our artist friend, who would have been a sort of neighbour of his, had she not flitted away to an art academy and the next act in her life in virtually the year he bought himself an outsized eyrie in the Santa Cruz range. Like him, she shone in school — especially as a science student. Then one day, she met and was magnetised by a whole family of artists living nearby. Watching them draw and paint — with radiant abandon — made trying her own hand irresistible. In no time, she was an addicted arts-worker-for-life.

The rest of this story told only in its leanest outline — to protect someone shy — is, on the economic plane, all too predictable. Though her work has found devoted fans to whom she ships orders at addresses all over the world, and she lives simply, with few luxuries, financial security has always been a dream never quite within grasp.

Dr. Djerassi, by contrast — even if he had been merely a successful scientist, not one referred to as ‘the father of the birth control pill,’ was virtually guaranteed a life free of money worries by turning the exceptional aptitude recognised at university into a career.

Here is the question that led to this post: is it necessarily quixotic (or mad or pointless) to wonder whether this cliché of contrasts — comfortable scientists and struggling artists — should be accepted as inevitable and unalterable, forever?

Accepted even though a Carl Djerassi was as unembarrassed as a Lawrence Steinman or a Josef Penninger in wearing his love of, and need for, art on his sleeve — long before he took off his lab coat to write poetry and fiction? Even if large numbers of practical materialists will scoff, ‘But that’s absurd! How could artists deserve to be compensated as well as scientists, who save lives, and whip up whizzy innovations entrepreneurs use to build technology giants, and send people to Mars?’

Ah, but if artists feed the souls of those scientists?

Better than setting up arts foundations and handing out grants, what if scientists were to make a sacred mission of looking for new ways to buy more work from artists of all descriptions? Employ more gifted and even daring architects to design their research centres and laboratories, … designers to add eye appeal to the utilitarian interiors in which they usually toil, … spend real money on aesthetically pleasing web sites … on art for scientific book and journal covers, and between them … and employ more editors capable of honing and adding lustre, if not poetry, to their words … ?

What’s more enlightening than a good biopic? Scientists using famous paintings to open doors to their minds, inviting us in: part 1

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Piet Mondrian’s ‘Red Tree’ (1908-10) opens Dr. Lawrence Steinman’s talk about solving the problem of multiple sclerosis

mondrian red tree wiki IMG_6616

Mondrian Gray Tree 1911 arrblogbybob

Mondrian- grey becoming more abstract 256385

Mondrian-FINAL LS CHOICE CHECK Composition-Trees-II_-1912-large-1044457612

In these thumbnail images, Mondrian’s trees grow steadily more impressionistic — or from the Steinman perspective, ‘molecular’








There’s a new biography of the polio vaccine hero, Dr. Jonas Salk, only months after the fêting and nomination for innumerable awards of a biopic about the computer pioneer, Alan Turing, and a film about the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Once, there was not much more than portraits like these — and occasionally, a decent novel set among the petri dishes — to give non-scientists an inkling of how the mind of a scientific research star works. This was always intensely frustrating. No matter how gifted the writer or lifelike the cinematic conjuring, if what you crave is a feel for the mental acrobatics, the cerebral gambolling and sensibility involved, you leave the table as hungry as after you saw Shakespeare in Love or The Agony and the Ecstasy, and they failed to make you any wiser about the mind of the Bard or Michelangelo, respectively.

Creativity at the coalface — in art or science — is close to impossible to demonstrate from the outside, looking in.

In science, though, something wonderful has been happening. The evolution of media used in scholarship and every other intellectual realm from chiefly text-centred communication to including images wholesale, has some of the most inventive scientists deploying post-Gutenberg tools to open small doors to their minds to the rest of us.

An unanticipated encounter in Silicon Valley, the other day, with a friend and former student of Dr. Lawrence Steinman, led to a lively conversation in praise of the rare gifts for inspiring and elucidating of this quietly distinguished neuroscientist, molecular biologist and immunologist — who could never be accused of the avid self-promotion that, according to his biographer Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, destroyed Dr. Salk’s reputation with fellow-scientists. For eight years, from 2003, Dr. Steinman coordinated immunology research across all departments at Stanford University. On more than one occasion, he and his research team have come tantalisingly close to discovering what causes multiple sclerosis, and devising a cure for this inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord — the nervous system — which is being diagnosed in growing numbers of people.

Four years ago, Dr. Steinman interwove a report on some of his research team’s latest findings about MS with a captivating appreciation of studies of trees by the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) — part of the De Stijl movement in abstract art — at a ceremony at which he was presented with the Charcot Prize.

The Charcot is awarded every two years by the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation to a scientist who has made exceptional progress in working out what causes this condition, and devising treatments for MS patients. Turning to art to aid enlightenment was apt because Jean-Martin Charcot — the French 19th-century scientist considered the founder of modern neurology — was a tremendous enthusiast for the use of drawings and photographs to demystify anatomy. But Dr. Steinman was actually primed for joining visual art to science by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel — co-winners of the 1981 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine — whom he credits with introducing him, in his student days, to ‘the neurophysiology of perception of art in the brain’.

Here are quick sketches from parts of that Mondrian-inspired lecture — ‘Piet Mondrian’s trees and the evolution in understanding multiple sclerosis’ — with reproductions from the series, starting with ‘Red Tree’. We will not pretend that this is anything other than a ferociously technical paper only comprehensible impressionistically by a non-expert. All we want to say is that it offers tiny, enticing glimmers of the way the mind of one scientist works.

This was Dr. Steinman’s opening:

[W]e pose four questions that are relevant to our understanding of multiple sclerosis (MS). For each, we shall look at the evolution of Piet Mondrian’s paintings of a solitary tree. As we follow the evolution in these paintings from representational to Cubist, we see that our understanding of MS is also a mere process, and that we have a long way to go before it is “complete.”

These were his questions for his audience of chiefly fellow-scientists, slightly simplified and re-worded, here:

1. The male/female disparity: why are women developing MS so much more frequently than men?

2. Are there guardian molecules that protect the nervous system in MS?

3. With all the approved drugs, how can we rationally decide which one to use?

4. The Precise Scalpel vs. the Big Hammer for therapy: in the future, will MS be treated chiefly with powerful, heavy-duty drugs aimed at ‘wide swathes of the immune system,’ or with fine discrimination, using treatments tailored to the needs of particular patients?

The parallels Dr. Steinman drew for the path of his MS research are to Mondrian’s going from depicting a tree more or less as most of us perceive one, to finer atomisations of the way we discern a trunk and branches from sets of shapes and correspondences we associate with ‘tree-ness’. Similarly, beginning with viewing people as whole beings – and concentrating on a disease afflicting some of them – Dr. Steinman proceeds to delve into causes of their affliction at the level of fractions, the realm of molecular biology. He advances from considering aspects of MS and its manifestations from the whole-person viewpoint — with symptoms and behaviour obvious to any observer — to exploring causes in microbiology, in an analysis growing steadily more abstract and arcane.

In viewing the disease from the whole-person perspective, he begins by asking …

… why there is an increasing incidence of MS in females. One might argue
that the increase in MS in females must be due to some factor in the environment. It is hard to imagine that females are “evolving” so rapidly that one might attribute this phenomenon to a genetic factor. We suggest the most likely environmental influence is the increased “fat” and increased caloric intake in the female diet. The set of receptors influenced by fats and by sex hormones is of course found in the
remarkable PPAR family.

Though men are also consuming more fat and calories, there is a peculiar — harmful — interplay between fat and female sex hormones.

Next, Dr. Steinman relates how research has been pointing to the behaviour of a particular protein:

We sought to identify molecules that are produced by both neurons and glia, and that serve to protect the brain from inflammatory and degenerative damage. […] The amyloid molecules produced in the brain in response to stress in a variety of pathologies including MS may be imbued with protective properties. These molecules may be actually converted into therapeutics for MS, in both the relapsing–remitting and progressive manifestations of the disease.

Now, Mondrian again, for a consideration of the third question on his list:

In Figure 5, The Flowering Apple Tree, painted in 1912, Mondrian has evolved his depiction of trees to an even more Cubist interpretation. It is a wonder that our brains perceive a “tree” in this representation with only subtle representational cues. But as we acknowledge these subtle cues, the rising verticality of the “trunk” and the characteristic horizontality of the branches, we learn that this is all that we need to convince ourselves, that is, our brains, that this is a “tree.”

… Just as our brains can discern what is a tree and what is not, we therefore ask whether there are rational algorithms to determine which therapeutic is most suitable for any particular patient. As treating neurologists we are blessed with
a situation now where we can choose between multiple orally active drugs as well as injectable drugs for treatment of RRMS. But how can we make rational decisions when choosing among them?

There is no substitute for the fun of reading the paper yourself, making of it whatever you can. That takes real effort if, like those of us at, your ignorance of molecular biology is a long way south of abysmal. To get hold of a free copy, you will need the help of a good research librarian  — or you can spend $5 on buying one on the PubMed site of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. [ Post-publication note with excellent news:  please see the offer in the comments section below. ]

Of course Mondrian had everything to do with luring us into persisting past our incomprehension and in spite of it, even though we had never encountered his tree pictures until the Charcot lecture found its way to us, serendipitously. Long ago, in childhood, we loved this artist’s geometric paintings in electrifying primary colours.

Steinman colleagues at Stanford, over the years, have included the late Carl Djerassi – the subject of several posts on this blog, not least as an exemplary forerunner of post-Gutenberg Man, about whom it is an understatement to say that he was equally at home in the arts and sciences. At a private celebration of his life in March, we found ourselves sitting next to someone else cleverly harnessing his love of fine art to his mission as a scientist — and he will be the subject of the next entry in this blog.

part 2 is here

Carl Djerassi, exemplary forerunner of Post-Gutenberg Man

Carl Djerassi in the late summer of 2013 - postgutenberg [at]

Carl Djerassi at home in Green Street in San Francisco in the late summer of 2013
– photograph: postgutenberg [at]

Recorded with sadness:

Carl Djerassi,

29 October 1923 – 30 January 2015

In an unprecedented commemoration, in our experience, yesterday’s Guardian ran — in addition to a short obituary for the general reader — a long and detailed encapsulation of Carl Djerassi’s extraordinary life in its science pages, and in its arts section, a critique of his dramatic oeuvre by a veteran theatre critic.

The photograph was taken in a poignant, unforgettable afternoon spent with Dr. Djerassi in September, 2013 – in which he revealed that he was recovering from a surgical operation for an illness he hoped to defeat for a second time. One recurring conversational theme was a comparison of recent experiences of grief and bereavement: it was clear that he found the loss of his third wife, the literary scholar Diane Middlebrook, virtually unendurable. We were both unquestionably happier discussing e-publishing and the post-print future — the reason for his invitation after writing, improbably, to express his pleasure and surprise in discovering this ‘sophisticated and literary’ blog.

His mention of having personally designed the gorgeous cover of the book he is holding, in his portrait — Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views — made it impossible not to ask him to pose with it. This he graciously agreed to do without any fuss, issuing no instructions and imposing no conditions. He could not have been a more relaxed subject.

The cover image he chose for the joint publication in a single volume of his play, Calculus, and Newton’s Hooke, by the English dramatist (and father of a physicist) David Pinner — about curious incidents and relationships in the life of Isaac Newton — is a photograph of a sculpture by Salvador Dali, a perfect choice for the surreal life of the greatest scientist before Einstein.

The news that Dr. Djerassi had designed some of his own book jackets could not have been less surprising after the three entries on this blog nominating him as a leader in the transition to unbounded, unboxed, post-Gutenberg creative expression: ‘Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

We did not expect to find any mention of his accomplishments as an early prototype of Post-Gutenberg Man in any obituary, and indeed there has been none in the dozen-odd specimens we have read so far. But on this blog and elsewhere, there will be a lot more to say on that subject.

In the meanwhile, because his interest in finding new readers of his work could not have been fiercer, all the way to his final weeks, here is an extract from Dr. Djerassi’s programme notes for Calculus – which should be of particular interest to readers of the most popular item in this site’s archives, ‘The Riddle of Ramanujan,’ an essay and review of a novelisation by David Leavitt of the life of India’s legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Any mention of dabbling in mysticism by a venerated scientific figure is apt to make the typical working scientist bristle, snap, or break out in some other conversational equivalent of hives. Positively the last thing she or he wants to hear is about the brain of Newton not merely leaning heavily in that direction, but every bit as preoccupied by the extra-rational and occult as an ‘exotic’ subcontinental would be three centuries later.

Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation – an approach coined Newtonism – earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist.


… Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”-composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.

Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne …

[ and here, because the playwright would prefer you to read his words in their context – and purchase and arrange for performances of his play — please continue to … ]

Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 1


Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920 - photograph by David Harris

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920
– photograph by David Harris

Now, here’s a strange thing: the most thrilling media-bending creation that we at post-Gutenberg have met is not by a gangling, google-eyed nineteen year-old muttering ‘mashup’ and ‘re-mix’ in sleeptalk, but by someone who will be ninety in October, writing imaginatively in voices brought back from the dead.

Carl Djerassi, featured here in April,  … who made his name as an inventor of birth control pills and has won high honours as both a scientist and technologist, is somehow cramming at least four lives into a single lifespan. His harbinger of mixed-media publishing’s future evolution is a hybrid of ingeniously animated philosophical debate, art appreciation, experimental graphics and dramatization. It comes pressed between cardboard covers, titled Four Jews on Parnassus, and fitted with a pocket holding a CD compilation of clips from musical tributes by five composers to a single painting by Paul Klee.

We will call the result simply a book for shorthand. The right-sounding term for it has yet to be invented. It is available as an e-book**, but the images in it – roughly half of them feats of larky digital tinkering, and as essential to its purposes as the pictures John Berger chose for Ways of Seeing were to his – are best savoured on paper. Rolls Royce-grade colour printing on luscious glossy pages makes Four Jews on Parnassus virtually pirate-proof; cheap knock-offs are inconceivable.

If, as we believe, the only adequate reply to a great poem is a dance, if not another poem, then Four Jews is a re-creation — in the identical spirit — of just what was so great about German Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century. Few of us brought up in the Anglophone tradition know much about their gifts to culture – our enlightenment having been obscured by lingering antipathies from the two world wars – even though many of us have heard their circle described as the pinnacle of discerning European aestheticism in modern times.

Had Djerassi tried to evoke this milieu and four of its superstars through making a film, the usual limitations of bio-pics – which lean to simple-mindedness and put too great a strain on our ability to suspend disbelief – would have got in the way. Four Jews reminded post-Gutenberg of the happiness of eavesdropping in cafes in the romantic city on the Seine – listening to strangers who happen to be old friends teasing each other, exposing all their foibles, as they tackle weighty and absorbing questions about art and culture with the confident casualness of master-chefs whipping up meringues.

Djerassi, who was born in Vienna, migrated to America at sixteen. Yet he has retained the European talent for using intelligent discursiveness to engage and charmingly instruct — in spite of his success as a technologist and scientist among colleagues for whom conversation is strictly about finding the shortest distance between two points, ignoring entrancing scenery en route.

The Jews of his title are not easily slotted. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a Hebrew scholar, but also a historian. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) was a sociologist, philosopher and musicologist. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer and painter.

Copyright-haters have recently been apt to invoke the name of the fourth, the cultural theorist and critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) – interpreting his famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ to mean that technology has so commodified art that it needs rescuing by nullifying the copyright of the replicators responsible for that commodification (and if this also destroys artists’ rights to own their own work, too bad.) By some impenetrable sequence of mental acrobatics, this reading of Benjamin is seen by the anti-copyright camp as proof that copyright causes commodification. (See ‘Does copyright turn art into commodities?’ part 1).

In Four Jews, Djerassi filters actual and imaginary debates between his philosophical quartet through his own, idiosyncratic mental preoccupations. He places the men on Mt. Parnassus, classical Greece’s equivalent of heaven for cultural supremos. The book is written as a long play whose most dramatic passages occur in revisiting episodes in the lives of the protagonists before their ascent to the clouds – peaking in outrageous sexual peccadilloes and other marital betrayals and travails. The talk is interrupted now and then by explanations of context and rich, complex and playful pictorial illustrations. Dialogue, Djerassi explains in his introduction, has fallen out of use for exposition by scientists – though it was used to great effect in the past by thinkers of the calibre of Galileo and Erasmus. This, he says, is a shame – and he quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury’s belief that dialogue is preferable to the ‘more dispassionate third-person voice’ for encouraging an ‘Intercourse of Caresses between the Author and Reader’.

In the Djerassian scheme, his immortals can order books from Amazon, but do not have email. To help make particular arguments, the author creates an acquaintanceship between Schoenberg and the others that never existed in life.

It is unsurprising that his book had to be published by the Columbia University Press (with the help of the Pushkin Fund) – and has had practically no reviewer attention since its publication in 2008. Commercial publishers are still frightened of proposals for mixed-media books. Reviewers, like bookstores, are used to working in categories and compartments. Four Jews treats frontiers between art forms and disciplines as if they did not exist – just as its characters did, to a remarkable degree, in reality.

The astonishingly prolific Swiss and German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) – from among whose nine thousand works Djerassi has been a collector for years – ‘profoundly affected the lives of three of my main personages,’ and more musical composers ‘than any other painter in art history’. Klee himself, he says, was ‘a superb classical musician’. In one conversational segment, Adorno tells Schoenberg that Klee inspired ‘330 composers producing over 500 compositions’ and calls these a ‘minimal estimate’ with the actual count being over eight hundred, including an Icelandic pop song by Egill Olafsson (included in the musical offerings on the book’s CD).

Schoenberg, who invented a variant of chess for four players, managed to earn a place in the musical firmament even though, as Djerassi explains, his early career as a composer was as discouraging as his start in his other vocation, painting – in which he never made his mark:

Schoenberg’s first public exhibition in 1910 Vienna was panned by the critics – as much of his music had been – yet the following year he was prepared to paint portraits for a living.

Is there a single contemporary sociologist who can presume to the authority with which Adorno theorised about music? Our guess: no. The Wikipedia says: ‘As a classically trained pianist whose sympathies with the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg resulted in his studying composition with Alban Berg […] Adorno’s commitment to avant-garde music formed the backdrop of his subsequent writings and led to his collaboration with Thomas Mann on … Doctor Faustus.’

Benjamin’s mind and psyche were so profoundly engaged by art that he did more than merely collect Klee’s works before the painter became famous. He used one picture that particularly fascinated him, ‘Angelus Novus,’ to focus his thoughts about history for an essay titled ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. As his – mostly posthumous – renown grew in the second half of the last century, that particular Klee work acquired iconic status.

Nothing is more stimulating to speculative minds than contrarianism. Djerassi teaches his readers a great deal about his quartet’s contributions to culture through inventing an argument between them, using this to explain his personal conviction that Benjamin should have made a different selection from the fifty-odd angel paintings by Klee – a picture far better suited to his essay’s theme and tone than ‘Novus’. (An extract from that argument can be read here.)

Then, in a leap into pure fun – remarkably effective at deepening interest and perception in his readers – Djerassi offers impish graphic demonstrations of other angelic possibilities by mixing and matching Klee pictures in close collaboration with a contemporary Austrian artist, Gabriele Seethaler. With his generous permission, we have reproduced these in a companion entry in this blog. (See part 2.)

‘Th’intertraffique of the minde’ to which the Oxford historian John Hale refers in his Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1994), quoting a medieval scholar, was incalculably stimulated during the grand transformation by travel, translation, and scholarly forums. Crucial to it was the invention of Gutenberg’s press, whose printed books ‘facilitated discussion over distance because page numbers and diagrams could be cited from identical copies’.

Post-print mindes communing across continents have, for some time, been able to look at the same web page simultaneously, and help themselves freely to the treasures of many disciplines and art forms.

Mixed-media creation is infectious. After hours of – sometimes hypnotic — immersion in Four Jews, post-Gutenberg is loath to return to offline works-in-progress. Mere static texts that do not speak, sing or lean exclusively on images to make a point here and there have begun to feel as quaintly dated and limiting as swirling script lettered by quill pen.

** An earlier version of this entry mistakenly said that Four Jews on Parnassus is not available as an e-volume. We cannot remember what gave us that impression when we bought it a few weeks ago, but apologise for our error.

[ Update on 11.11.2019: For the record, post-Gutenberg had yet to meet Carl Djerassi when this series of entries on Paul Klee was written in 2013 (see part 2 and part 3)  — but did in early autumn 2014 . All exchanges with this intellectually generous correspondent about ideas of mutual interest were made across vast distances. ]