Youngsub Yoon

The similarity between painting and theoretical physics, and a recommendation for “The Evolution of Physics”

Many people would be surprised to hear of a similarity between painting and theoretical physics. After all, a successful painter isn’t necessarily good at theoretical physics, and the reverse also does not have to be true. Yet I find some similarities.

Successful painters should be able to draw with some modicum of accuracy and style. For this reason, aspiring painters spend an enormous amount of time practicing. It is, of course, not hard to understand that drawing well is a prerequisite to being a successful painter. But is this all that is required?

I believe that the answer is no. The paintings they make have to have artistic value and appeal to others. In order to create such works, painters have to have artistic intuitions and choose good subjects. Indeed, without these intuitions, they will fail to make something beautiful; anything they draw, however accurately rendered, will be little more than a photograph. Moreover, if they don’t choose good subjects, their paintings will have no meaning, and other people will not appreciate them.

The same goes for theoretical physicists. Successful theoretical physicists need to excel at calculation and to have a deep understanding of physical concepts. Accordingly, aspiring theoretical physicists spend an enormous amount of time practicing calculations and studying what the forerunners of theoretical physics have discovered. Usually they practice calculations and check whether they have understood the concepts correctly by following the calculations of the forerunners and by solving homework problems. It is not hard to understand that good calculation skills and a firm understanding of concepts are prerequisites to being a successful theoretical physicist. But is this all that is required?

I believe that the answer is no. The research that physicists conduct should have value, appeal to other physicists, and inspire subsequent research. In order to plan and conduct such research, physicists have to have mathematical intuitions and physical insight and to choose appropriate topics. Furthermore, as many physicists have advised me, while the ability to solve problems well is important, it is just as essential—if not more so—to formulate good problems. Indeed, coming up with such problems requires the same creativity as that required of a good painter.

In “the Evolution of Physics,” Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld wrote:

"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science." This view is also clearly expressed by another physicist. The winner of the Fields medal-which is equivalent to the Nobel Prize in mathematics-and single most renowned string theorist Edward Witten said:

“Most people who haven’t been trained in physics probably think of what physicists do as a question of incredibly complicated calculations, but that’s not really the essence of it. The essence of it is that physics is about concepts, wanting to understand the concepts, the principles by which the world works.”

For these reasons, I recommend that you read “The Evolution of Physics” by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld. It will tell you how new problems were formulated and how concepts in physics evolved over the centuries. They wrote,“[in the following pages of this book], the importance of seeing known facts in a new light will be stressed and new theories described.”

I hope that you will enjoy this book.