According to Prof Martin Kemp, who is a partner in the 'Connections in Space' Project, when it comes to handling visual things, there are scientists who tend in one direction or another:
"They are not absolutely separate people in the way that there are the great visualisers. They can do these extraordinary spatial things in their heads - they have some kind of wiring laid down - they can do that."
Prof Sir Roger Penrose believes that there are certain qualities in common between art and science. He explains:
"First of all, the aesthetic qualities in art are very important in science too. In science you have to be able to stand back and see what are the artificial constraints and see if you can find a way outside … a route round them which can be very important in science."
Much can be learnt from how children represent space. They are much more experimental in how they handle space. Prof Kemp says that it is fresh for them as they don’t have absolute preconceptions:
"It tells us an enormous amount about the basic processes of how we look at something and get it down onto a flat surface. It’s a kind of improvisatory quality which when we become very sophisticated, it’s difficult to recapture."
Physicist Prof Penrose accepts that there were a lot of visual influences when he was growing up, primarily from his father who he describes as very artistic:
"My father did draw from nature. But he was also very interested in geometry. I think that was an important influence. I do find that it’s very helpful to represent things graphically."
The first phase of Prof Kemp's project is about gathering in. There are an enormous amount of ways that space has been represented on flat surfaces and on three-dimensional surfaces. There is the perspective from the Renaissance period onwards and the spaces of modern physics - four-dimensional space, quantum mechanics, relativity - all of which do not deal with these absolutely straightforward boxes of space that we are familiar with.
In the future, Prof Kemp's team is going to be thinking about how - through the use of exhibitions, artists, and the Internet - they can bring into a public and specialist domain different ways of representing space. This will enable them to begin to communicate in a way which has not been done adequately up until now. Prof Kemp hopes that they can open up peoples' imaginations to get a broader grasp of the possibilities of space: of infinite space, of different sorts of space, of movement in space. He highlights the exciting work of Patrick Hughes who, for several years, has been making spatial pictures which open up other worlds - worlds of movement, worlds of strange infinite spaces of an illogical kind.
Prof Penrose thinks that in mathematical physics, specifically in relativity theory, Einstein’s theory of space time, one needs to think about four-dimensional space time. Unfortunately, four-dimensional space time isn’t the sort of thing we readily visualise in our experience! He says that to develop a skill to be able to handle four-dimensions has been important for him.
Prof Kemp thinks that most scientists have a way that they are used to thinking about space and they are only aware of a very small slice of all the possibilities. So one of the interesting things is that it can provide a sudden tweak of surprise in the scientist and get a different way of thinking or a different way of constructing an image of something:
"If you say "does the scientist literally learn from art for his or her science?", I think the answer probably is predominantly "no" but it is the wrong question. The question is: how are artists and scientists scratching the same kind of itch."
First broadcast: Friday 11 May 2001 on BBC TWO