A&O READING – Prematurity and Uniqueness … Gunther Stent in Sci Amer 1972)

Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery
A novel idea is very often overlooked or neglected in science –and in art.   The chemist Gunther Stent puzzled over this impediment to progress.
[In 1944, OT Avery showed that DNA is the substance of heredity] “So why was Avery’s discovery not appreciated in its day? Because it was “‘premature.” …  In other words, is there a way of providing a criterion of the prematurity of a discovery other than its failure to make an impact? Yes, there is such a criterion: A discovery is premature if its implications cannot be connected by a series of simple logical steps to canonical, or generally accepted, knowledge.
Arguably, science is cumulative and the the truth (higher confidence) will eventually be manifest, while art represents unique and never-to-be manifest if it were not for the artist.  Stent speaks to several possible comparisons between art and science.
“Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery” by Gunther S. Stent (1972) in: Scientific American , Vol. 227, No. 6 (December 1972), pp. 84-93.  Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/24922939
It appears that Stent’s central insight is shared in all creative endeavours: .  “Never forget what I believe was observed to you by Coleridge,” said William Wordsworth, “every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” (William Wordsworth (1807) (in a “Letter to Lady Beaumont, 21 May 1807,” in E. de Selincourt (ed.) Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth vol. 2 (revised by M. Moorman, 1969) cited in notes on the hazards of prematurity and uniqueness of ideas

“An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents:  it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul.  What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning.” (Max Planck (1858-1947)[i]



An inconceivable percept or concept must be anchored in something conceivable… In the bible, a burning bush, In science fiction, entities that want to communicate with humans arrange to manifest in a more familiar form:  e.g., “Contact” (1987)  SEE A&O notes on metaphors for the unknowable.   We’re using dramatic examples, but the problem of translation is pervasive and in the background of a vast amount of our interconnectedness.  For example translating one language to another or from one modality to another (such as verbal descriptions of art or music). 



Modern non-representational art ?  Kandinsky, often credited as the critical stepping stone to modern art worked at about the same time as Hilma af Klint early in the 20th century.

“At the tail end of the 19th century, a string of scientific developments were radically altering prevailing ideas about the world. Darwin’s evolutionary theories, while not yet entirely accepted in academic circles, matriculated into almost every sphere of popular culture. The discovery of subatomic particles, radioactivity, and the X-ray confirmed for spiritualists that there was, in fact, a godly, invisible realm of existence.” [i]


There is no evidence that hey knew of each others work.  They were both affected (as most western culture was at the time) by spirituality, but “Kandinsky’s brand of spiritual abstraction looked inward to the artist’s own unconscious muse, af Klint literally felt that astral spirits were working through her.”[i]   They were not competitors and grew o have deeply different motivations.  Both well trained professional artists, but after af Klint became more absorbed with a circle of friends to explore sprituality, she worked outside traditional art circles.  She became the visionary that now compels our attention, particularly since a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2018.

af Klint intuitively appreciated the burden, possibly fatal curse of prematurity:  She …”placed a 20-year embargo on exhibiting her work following her death—not in order to be secretive, as Bashkoff, the curator of the Guggenheim show, initially assumed, but as a “gesture of controlling and trying to determine the audience of her work,” which, to Tracey Bashkoff, reiterates her agency as an artist. Af Klint was “grappling with the works she was committed to, wanting them to be received in a safe space by a spiritually ready audience.”  Although she “…was intermittently connected to both mainstream society and the Swedish artistic vanguard—she chose to believe that the world was not ready to understand and accept what she knew was groundbreaking work.”  (Fiore 2018)[i](see Artsy essay and interview of the Guggenheim curator on swedish-mystic-hilma-af-klint-invented-abstract-art . then a Guggenheim video: https://www.guggenheim.org/video/hilma-af-klint.. 

The idea that CREATIVITY always involves REMIX of previous intellectual or cultural. even recreational ideas is developed at multiple levels of organization, creativity always builds on some something: prior content of mind–some of which is  congenital, most is previously received (during development). Take a look at Kirby Fergusons video “Everything is a Remix (Complete Updated 2023 Edition)” emphasizing music and culminating in consideration of AI — artificial intelligence.  


[i] Julia Fiore (2018) How the Swedish Mystic Hilma af Klint Invented Abstract Art. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-swedish-mystic-hilma-af-klint-invented-abstract-art Oct 12, 2018 6:28pm





[i].  Max Planck, German physicist who framed the quantum theory in 1900. “His research into the manner in which heated bodies radiate energy led him to report that energy is emitted only in indivisible amounts, called ‘quanta’, the magnitudes of which are proportional to the frequency of the radiation.   His discovery ran counter to classical physics and is held to have marked the commencement of the modern science. He received a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.  To learn more about Max Planck, visit:    http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,115045+1,00.html .”)