SCIENCE Friday, November 26, 1999

Duchamp and Poincaré 
Renew an Old Acquaintance 
by Barry Cipra 


What did the groundbreaking modernist painter learn from the father of chaos? Art historians and mathematicians debate the question.

It was not your usual scientific conference. Talks on algebraic topology took turns with Mallarmé's poems. Lectures on Duchamp's Large Glass shared an audience with sessions on celestial mechanics. But that's what you get when mathematicians and historians of science lock horns with art historians and postmodern theorists, as they did at Harvard University, 5 to 7 November.

Some 200 scholars crossed the higher-than-usual disciplinary walls to attend "Methods of Understanding in Art and Science: The Case of Duchamp and Poincaré," a conference organized by Rhonda Roland Shearer, a New York City-based artist, and her husband, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould. (Gould is also the president of AAAS, which publishes Science.) The conference was a coming-out party of sorts for Shearer's findings--or flights of fancy, as skeptics see them--regarding the pioneering modern artist Marcel Duchamp and his take on the writings of the mathematician Henri Poincaré. Shearer and Gould, who co-authored a recent essay in Science (5 November, p. 1093) on the relationship of art and science, founded the Art Science Research Lab in their New York home to take a fresh look at Duchamp's oeuvre. With colleagues including Richard Brandt, a physicist at New York University (NYU), they have gathered evidence that Poincarean ideas lurk behind several of the artist's most famous works--and as a result, these works are not what they appear to be. CONTINUED>>