A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art and History

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9780262690829: A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art and History

"As an old admirer of Cyril Smith, I'm delighted to learn that a collection of his essays on the arts will be published. They are a unique body of work which only he could have produced."
—Meyer Schapiro

Science, art, and history all share common or analogous patterns of hierarchical order that are embedded into the structure of the material world as well. This is a central insight of these essays by a generalist who has also spent a lifetime working in his specialty, the nature of materials. To Cyril Stanley Smith, the transformation of metals from one state to another, or the contrasts at one level that merge through repetition into uniformity at a higher level, carries solid metaphorical implications for the human condition.

Cyril Stanley Smith's own expansion of outlook to encompass successively technology, science, history, and art is loosely implicit in the chronological ordering of the fourteen essays included in this volume and explicitly developed in one of them that "comes as close to an autobiography as I am ever likely to write" and traces the evolution of Smith's ideas on science and art.

Trained as an industrial metallurgist, Smith turned to the purely scientific study of the structure of metals and alloys after his experience at Los Alamos during World War II, drawn in part by his delight in the intrinsic beauty of these structural manifestations of symmetry and natural design. A growing interest in the history of the science and technology of materials led him to consult the artifactual evidence—the art objects in museums that either greatly predate written historical records or provide, through scientific examination, more reliable information than do the surviving documents of their period. This direct contact with fine or formal art only reinforced Smith's intuition that the aesthetic impulse is at play over the full range of human activity, whether it leads to the making of a bronze sculpture, a scientific theory, or a social reorganization. A variety of investigations of art objects is cited in the text, and the author regards the accompanying illustrations to be as important as the text.

In particular, the essays make the case that historically many advances and discoveries regarding metals and ceramics came about through aesthetic curiosity and the desire to improve works of fine and decorative art, rather than through scientific investigation or in response to the need for products having practical utility. Many techniques and even whole industries, Smith writes, began with the making and reproduction of art works.

Other essays deal with the emerging understanding of the remarkable properties of steel, the positive uses of corrosion, ancient casting and molding techniques, and the connection between attempts to reproduce oriental porcelain in Europe and modern geological ideas. Still others are more philosophical in approach.

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"In most of these essays Smith tries to stay as far away from the laboratory as possible, the better to reveal in the development of science and technology their historical debt to artists and artisans. He delights in the nodes at which disparate human enterprises meet.... Out of this holistic bent, which wends through the history and philosophy of science, the history of technology, art history, and aesthetics, comes no one over-arching dictum but rather a rich tribute to structural affinities."
- Harpers

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