Science and Salvador Dali

Something I wrote 2 years ago for a humanities course.


As well known for his otherworldly virtuosity as he was for his unconventional subject matter, the Catalan surrealist Salvador Dali once called himself a fish swimming between the “the cold water of art and the warm water of science.” He was not, as many artists have been before and after him, a scientific dilettante. He devoured hundreds of books on physics, higher mathematics, optics, geometry, biology and psychology. He even subscribed to academic journals to stay current.

After becoming acquainted with Freudian psychology, Dali began to experiment with dream interpretation and free association. His familiarity with these techniques and theories eventually led him to develop the paranoic-critical method, which he used extensively for the rest of his career.

Although Dali claimed his soft watches were inspired by camembert cheese melting in the sun, the deeper symbolism is made apparent by the work’s title. The Persistence of Memory is obviously a product of his study of psychoanalysis. A number of critics have suggested the painting was influenced by the Theory of Special Relativity, but by 1932 Dali had not developed a serious interest in theoretical physics. The clocks represent the relationship of consciousness to time: time passes, memory persists. Retrospectively he may have looked at the piece as a representation of temporal relativism, however, Einstein played no role in its conception or gestation.

Averse to all psychoactive substances except champagne on occasion, hypanogic sensations—images and sounds experienced briefly before falling asleep and shortly after awakening—were Dali’s preferred means of accessing his unconscious mind.  He was surely not the first artist to draw material from his dreams, but it can be safely argued that no Western artist besides Bosch has as brilliantly rendered their dreams and nightmares. It is hard to imagine anyone before Dali creating a figure as grotesque as the bather of The Bather.

Dividing his output into distinct phases is misleading, though the same can  be said for many authors and painters. The Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening was painted in 1944, four years into what scholars call his “nuclear mystic” period. The fundamental difference between his Surreal and Nuclear periods was his return to the Catholic Church in the early 1940’s. Yet his reclaimed faith did not stop him from painting such masterworks as the Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity. He loved ideas, but remained always Dali. His ultimate goal was to merge art, autobiography, science and religion into a coherent whole. Catholicism couldn’t guilt him out of his fondness for big round asses. The guy had good taste. What can I say?

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory illustrated the artist’s symbolic break from Freud and Einstein, for while quantum mechanics did not invalidate Einstein’s contributions, the philosophical implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle were very different than those of Special and General Relativity. They seemed to Dali, a long-time admirer of Kant, to vindicate the metaphysics of the little man from Königsberg. Einstein’s universe seems counterintuitive compared to Newton’s, but it is still essentially rational. The subatomic strangeness unlocked by Planck, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, on the other hand, seemed to dismantle the mechanistic foundation of modern science.


Through careful experimentation and mathematical rigor physicists proved beyond a doubt that particles behave like particles and waves, that their movement is probabilistic, and that it is impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle at any given time. All three of these observations were very troubling to  some classical physicists. There are, of course, numerous interpretations of quantum theory and many critiques of each interpretation. As one can imagine, Dali was attracted to the most radical versions of the Copenhagen Interpretation. The relationship between the observer and observed has led some adherents, frequently laymen with a religious agenda, of the Copenhagen School to imply or assert that consciousness plays an active role in shaping physical reality. This is not a mainstream opinion, but it is one that appeals to many people with mystical or artistic pretensions/inclinations.


    Galatea of the Spheres epitomizes nuclear mysticism. Objects are composed of countless nucleuses surrounded by comparatively vast territories of empty space. Matter, at its most fundamental level, is composed of the same set of building blocks. Essentialism, the outlook on matter that dates back in Western thought at least to Plato, was wrong. All elements are composed of the same subatomic particles. Lead and gold do not have different mystical essences. In this way the universe seems much more simple and elegant than it did when Plato’s views prevailed.  Of course, the mainstream acceptance of atomic theory began well before Dali was born, but nuclear weapons and the metaphysical speculations that arose in the wake of quantum theory brought the formerly obscure atom into the limelight. Atomic theory was at once the most beautiful and most destructive theory known to man. Dali perceived and depicted both aspects with his usual acuity and adroitness.



Molecular biology reduced the mysterious process of inheritance to a single and beautiful molecule with which Dali became instantly enamored. Always fond of helices, the elucidation of DNA’s structure seemed to confirm Dali’s cherished belief that reality on some level is a helix. The Catalan biochemist Joan Oro commissioned a number of biology-inspired paintings from Dali.  The three dimensional structures of proteins also inspired his more daring experiments with form and texture. However, it is not as though he hadn’t been playing with topology since his Surrealist period. Dali‘s development as an artist is one of aggregation, not transformation.

Dali closely studied mathematics in imitation of the Renaissance masters he so admired. His obsession with the rhinoceros horns did not stem from a fondness for the animal, but from the way the horn follows a perfect logarithmic spiral. He experimented with fractals in The Visage of War, the golden ratio in The Sacrament of the Last Supper, four dimensional geometry in Corpus Hypercubus, and Catastrophe Theory in The Swallow’s Tail.


Corpus Hypercubus

An unfolded square is a line, an unfolded cube is a series of squares and an unfolded hypercube is a series of cubes that resembles a cross. In Corpus Hypercubicus Dali attempts to insinuate that religion is part of the 4th dimension, part of what human beings cannot perceive with their senses.  Again, as he did when he was infatuated with physics, Dali uses science to further a mystical agenda. For him art, science and religion are inseparable.

Catastrophe Theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with sudden and dramatic changes in the behaviors of systems, sometimes due to a single variable. For instance, if one were to measure the number of bubbles formed in a pan of water at various temperatures, there would be a sudden and dramatic increase around the boiling point. The simple S-shaped catastrophe, the cusp, as well as a more complex one called the swallow’s tail, appear in The Swallow’s Tail.


The topological representations of catastrophes are lovely in and of themselves, but everyone’s favorite surrealist also found Thom’s exploration of chaotic systems to be conceptually stimulating as well. The adjustment of a single variable in can yield radical changes in a very complex system. Thom’s equations seemed at the time to be applicable to fields as diverse as biology, economics and meteorology, and although from time to time they are used it is used for practical ends, Catastrophe Theory is no longer a popular topic in mathematics.


Applied Catastrophe Theory

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