Amy Lin and the Ancient Eye

Last weekend, I went to see Amy Lin’s new show, Kinetics, at the Addison-Ripley gallery in DC (the show runs till April 24;  go). Since I last wrote about her, she has started exploring patterns that go beyond her trademark dots. Swirls, lines and other patterns are starting to appear. Amy’s art  represents the death of both art and science as simple-minded categories, and the rediscovery of a much older way of seeing the world, which I’ll call the Ancient Eye. Yes, she nominally functions in the social skin of a modern “artist,” and is also a chemical engineer by day, but really, her art represents a way of seeing the world that is more basic than either “artistic” or “scientific” ways of seeing.  Take this piece from the Kinetics collection for instance, my favorite, titled Cellular.

Is it inspired by diffraction patterns? (image from, this one is an electron diffraction pattern from a Ti2Nb10O29 crystal recorded by a CCD camera)

Or is it “pure art” in some sense? The question is actually deeply silly (though she seems to have been asked it multiple times), since it assumes that a superficial and recent social divide between art and science is a deep feature of the universe.

The Ancient Eye is a precursor to  both the scientific type of imagination that invented diffraction patterns, and a specific kind of artistic eye that can see this way without having ever encountered the idea of diffraction. Possibly it emerges from the very structure of our minds (I once watched a documentary about a math savant who could instantly tell if a number was prime; he apparently “saw” numbers in his head as a sort of landscape, within which  primes appeared in some special way).

It is tempting to call this the “Renaissance Eye” (and Amy a “Renaissance Woman”), but that would be a bad mistake, since the Renaissance is what nearly killed it, by introducing the great art/science schism. Da Vinci was the last possessor of the Ancient Eye before its recent rediscovery, not the first possessor of the Renaissance Eye(s). If you look in the period before Da Vinci, in the so-called “Dark Ages,” you’ll see a lot more of this way of seeing than after. It strikes me that we admire Da Vinci for the wrong reasons, for being what seems in our time to be a “multi-talented” mind. No; the divisions that blind us didn’t exist in his age. He was just a seer, and what he saw is more impressive than the fact that his “seeing” spanned a multiplicity of our 20th century categories.

C. P. Snow and the Two Cultures

It is sad that writers like  C. P. Snow (of The Two Cultures fame) in the last century ended up widening and institutionalizing the chasm between the humanities and the sciences while attempting to bridge it. To be fair to them though, the “humanists” started it, by attempting to take scientists, mathematicians and engineers down a social peg or two. C. P. Snow quotes number theorist G. H. Hardy: “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

The natural anxieties and suspicions of humanist literary intellectuals are old and deep-rooted (Coleridge:  “the souls of 500 Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or Milton”), and cannot be wished away by lecturing (see my post The Bloody-Minded Pleasures of Engineering). Humanism is a retreat to a secularized notion of humans being spiritually “special,” as a way of combating  a sense of insignificance within our huge, mysterious universe. But perhaps the way to bridge the gap and bring humanists back to this universe, that we share with other atom-sets, is to show that the eye of science and the eye of art are both descended from the Ancient Eye.

Before the Great Divide

Okay, C. P. Snow is yesterday’s news; we need to dig further in the archives to understand the Ancient Eye. The  post-reformation notions of both art and science were distortions of the Ancient Eye way of seeing (and connecting to) everything from atoms to galaxies. Possibly what created the disconnect was the rise of late englightenment era Christianity (post Martin Luther (1483-1546)) and its disdain of the profane material plane as a sort of waiting room in front of a doorway into a spiritual plane. Or perhaps it was a result of the thoroughly meaningless idea of scientific “objectivity” that was partly the fault of Descartes (1596-1650).

Either way, the result was an anomaly that caused a great divide. Let’s pick up the story just before the Great Blinding of the Ancient Eye, with Da Vinci. My favorite Da Vinci piece is neither the Mona Lisa, nor his amazing engineering sketches, but his iconic image, The Vitruvian Man (public domain), dating from 1485, or two years before the birth of Martin Luther. Da Vinci’s image is a representation of anatomical proportions and their relation to the classical orders proposed by the Roman architect, Vitruvius. This is the Ancient Eye pondering anatomy and seeing architecture.

This way of seeing the human body is reminiscent of another iconic image:  the image of Shiva in the Chola Nataraja (“Lord of Dance”) bronzes. The Chola bronzes, which began evolving in the 8th and 9th centuries, and stabilized into their modern iconic form by the 12th century, were an attempt to see a creative-destructive cosmological metaphysics in the dynamic human form. This is the Ancient Eye seeing cosmic order in frozen human dance. When I was a kid, an art teacher taught me the Nataraja formula (it starts with the inscription of a hexagon inside a circle; Shiva’s navel is the center). You can create very stylized and abstract Natarajas once you learn the basic geometry (this image is from the New York Metropolitan museum, Creative Commons)

This Nataraja-Vitruvian Man story actually continues in interesting ways with Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase) and another local DC artist, Larry Morris. I wrote about this in The Solemn Whimsies of Larry Morris. You can think more about that rabbit trail if you like, but let’s go from the Vitruvian Man and the Nataraja towards more abstract stuff.

Another Ancient Eye inscribed-circle image, which emerged across the Himalayas from the Chola Nataraja, is the Yin-Yang symbol. It represents roughly the same idea, creative-destruction. The white fish and black fish chase each other. Their eyes contain their duals, and the seeds of their own destruction, and the creation of the other.

I like to think that in some lost prehistoric time, the distant ancestors of Da Vinci and the unknown creators of the Nataraja and Yin-Yang symbols, got drunk together after a boar hunt, and talked about transience and transformation, while pondering the fact that the death of the boar had sustained their life.

The Ancient Eye truly comes into its own at a somewhat greater remove from representation of reality or even metaphysical ideas like Yin-Yang. One of my pilgrimage dreams is to visit the Alhambra in Spain, reputed to contain depictions of all the major mathematical symmetries. It will be the atheist hajj of an unapologetic kafir. The Alhambra (14th century) provides proof that we could see the symmetries of the universe within ourselves, long before Galois (1811-1832) and Sophus Lie (1842-1899) gave us the mathematical language of group theory, and the ability to see the same symmetries in electrons, muons and superstrings.

This particular story of Ancient Eye seeing evolved through classical tessellation, to the familiar art of Escher, to the weird non-repeating Penrose tilings of the twentieth century. Here is a picture (Creative Commons) of Penrose standing on a Penrose-tiled floor at Texas A&M University:

This particular story had its grand finale of profound Ancient Eye seeing only a few years ago, when the E8 symmetry group (the last beast, an “exceptional Lie group,” in a complete classification of symmetries in mathematics) was visualized (Creative Commons) :

The language invented by Galois and Lie helped launch the program of cataloging all the universe’s symmetries, a program of breathtaking mathematical cartography that finally drew to a close with the mapping of E8.

And in case you have a naive view of symmetry and dissonance in how we “see,” and disdain such symmetries as not “artistic,” consider the enormously dissonant and messy beauty of an object called the Mandelbulb, found along the way to a holy grail search among mathematicians for a 3D Mandelbrot set.

No, this isn’t a photograph of a cave in Antarctica. This is a Mandelbulb detail that has been titled “Hell Froze Over.”  And somehow this thing must emerge from the more visually obvious symmetries of things like the E8 group.

The Ancient Eye and the Ancient Hand

But it is perhaps in engineering that the Ancient Eye has been best preserved, waiting to be rediscovered by Amy Lin’s generation of artists. Engineering is so strongly associated with human doing that we sometimes forget that it too begins with human seeing. Before there were engineering schools, there was still this Ancient Eye seeing and an Ancient Hand building. It was in the Dark Ages, not in ancient Greece or Rome, that modern engineering was born, as Joel Mokyr demonstrates in The Lever of Riches. Today, the Ancient Hand has become engineering and it creates vastly more powerful things. But the Ancient Eye and Ancient Hand still lurk in the background. I talked about this schematic of the world’s largest railroad classification yard, Bailey Yard, in my recent piece, An Infrastructure Pilgrimage.

But you don’t have to go to Nebraska to appreciate the workings of the Ancient Hand. Next time you’re on a plane, pick up your in-flight magazine, skip to the end, and ponder the airport terminal layout drawings. It helps to turn the magazine upside down. Here’s one of my favorites, Miami International Airport. Turned upside down so you aren’t distracted by the words.

But perhaps it would be good to finish this retrospective with Da Vinci. I have heard no more heartwarming bridge-the-gap tale than this: Da Vinci’s brainchild, the helicopter, was finally made real by Igor Sikorsky, who was funded by the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who supported Sikorsky’s research with a $5000 check. So much for facile ideas that “art” is some kind of precious flower that must at once be protected from, and funded by, the rapacious endeavor of engineering. That killing machine of Vietnam and life-saving machine of emergency rescues might not exist if a rich artist had not decided to support a starving engineer. Perhaps that is why the enduring symbol of the Ancient Eye is neither the test-tube, nor the paintbrush, but the notebook. Here is Da Vinci’s notebook helicopter sketch from the 15th century (Public Domain),

And here’s an Igor Sikorsky sketch (Library of Congress) from his 1930 notebook. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Maybe the gap between science/engineering and art isn’t the vast gulf C. P. Snow imagined it to be. Maybe it is merely the distance between the 2H pencil used in engineering drafting and the 2B pencil, the mainstay of line art. It is a gap that can easily be bridged by something as simple as a notebook. Doesn’t seem that far, does it?

The Ancient Eye in the Age of TED

I feel deeply ambivalent about the current trend in information visualization that somehow treats it as a mind-candy production discipline designed to persuade, manipulate and titillate, to sell pretty illusions of understanding. A great deal has been written about TED, the elitism it represents and how it encourages a deep-rooted television-science mentality among the best thinkers, by tempting them to pander. But it is perhaps this, an elevation of a way of showing above a way of seeing, that sometimes makes me uncomfortable about TED. Once more, we are limiting the grandeur of the universal to the expediencies of the merely human. Once again we are saying, “Look at me!” instead of saying “Look at that!” We won’t get to “You ARE that!” anytime soon. And yes, I am aware of the irony of this sentiment being expressed in a very TEDesque blog post.

Like anybody else fascinated by ways of seeing, I have my unread Edward Tufte books reverentially placed in my bookshelf, but something about the whole discipline he has spawned (and the “ideas worth spreading” ethos it has spawned in the glossy technology-entertainment-design bridge-building project that is TED) bothers me at a deep level.

Perhaps it is this. To me, the most soul-stirring  direction in which to turn the Ancient Eye is towards the unknown, towards what we don’t know, towards doubt. Stuff that we can’t even explain to ourselves, let alone teach others or “spread.” Here are two such images, whose significance I don’t yet fully understand, that have had me pondering a lot lately. One is a screenshot from Michael Ogawa’s Code Swarm visualization of the evolution of the Eclipse software project.

And the other is another Amy Lin piece, Hydrolysis

I have no idea whether these are “Ideas Worth Spreading,” but I like looking at them. It is my substitute for prayer. Blake’s Tyger, with its immortal symmetries, also helps.

[I deleted the reference to Udo of Aachen; I should have trusted my first instinct that it was a hoax! Thanks Chris4D]

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


    • Whoa, did I get punk’d or did I get punk’d. Edited the article and removed that reference. Fortunately, the argument still seems to hang together coherently without it, and becomes shorter, a good thing.

      Thanks Chris.

  1. Amazing, Venkat, amazing, thanks for collecting all these gems for us.

  2. This time, it is truly speechless with admiration :-)

    The web is credited to have led to blurring of boundaries but boundary-busting is sorely needed at various levels. Interpreting the actions of past greats using current classification buckets seems so shallow but even intellectuals (perhaps, especially so) fall prey to it.

    Examples I can think of offhand:

    Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, an influential author, pans the Nehruvian vision for everything wrong about the Indian economy without a semblance of balance in the perspectives from the early 1950s, or the credit for world-class educational and research institutions.

    Similar simplistic criticism is sometimes made of the authors of the American constitution and their stand on slavery.

    I cannot explain exactly how but I felt some connection between your post and the following John Tukey quotes I happened to see recently:

    The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see.

    Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.

    Incidentally Tukey, while at Bell Labs, invented the term “software” and also “bit” as a handier alternative to “bigit” and “binit”. Imagine!

  3. Mysteries worth showing…

    I have nothing to say in responce, (not yet) but I am affected.

    • Wow, looking back that seems so pretentious, but the problem of talking about things you don’t have words for is that you have to use the enigmatic vocabulary of mystics. An artisan relationship between the eye and hand can skip out the stage of codification and commentary, where simply observing an artefact is enough to pick up some of the insights that produced it.

      The renaissance can be seen to be seeded in the growth of universities, in one version of history at least, where an artisan culture gets supplemented and then overcome by a more deduction-based culture from the Arabic world (imagine being a monk stuck writing commentaries of other people’s ideas, and finding Euclid’s elements, a book that is basically all commentary and deduction, but uses it to say something unexpected!).

      There’s a lot of clever stuff there about guilds and traditions of practice verses master plans and critiques of foundations. You can see remnants of both now embodied in two distinct ways of locking in value; brands and trademarks, vs patents and IP. I’m guessing someone has already written a book about it, but I don’t know who!

      The thing is, if you’re working from deduction, you need to start from very minimal foundations, so people can follow your logic. But if you took all the stuff you notice here and started trying to use it to build something, however separate and scatter-gun the influences might seem, the fact that you succeeded in putting them together justifies the idea that they fit. The design is it’s own argument.

      Maybe that’s a solution to the TED talk problem, every talk about mind spinning possibilities should be linked to some early-stage project that starts to embody them. So people can see the ideas in action, and people share not just pretty lights, but ways of doing stuff.

  4. anthony gonzalvez says

    actually, there is an academic discipline that bridges art and science/engineering – it’s called ‘design’. architecture is a one such example, but industrial design is a vast field that combines visual aesthetic with typical engineering/manufacturing considerations. you appear to have apersonal preference for geometric patterns. there is nothing scientific about it per se in amy lin’s art. they just happen to look like visualization graphics that appear in science magazines. all art is fundamentally, a reflection/refraction of reality through the perceptive lens of the artist. what i’m trying to get at is that for example, the impressionists worked with light and its effects on the human eye, so you’re right in saying that the schism between art and science is false, but it is not in the way you see it exactly, i think.

  5. We do seem to be in an age of “look at me!” and TED’s performance art of intellectual rock-star posturing is an excellent example, never failing to raise clever over insightful, showmanship over merit.

    Here’s a completely unrelated, but completely related quote from an entertainment news source:

    “She’s the voice of this generation,” [Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta] claimed. That’s right Taylor Swift is today’s Bob Dylan. And you know what? Ludicrous as that statement sounds, he’s absolutely right. Swift truly is the voice of this generation — a generation of coddled kids who believe fame and fortune are their birthright, talent and originality are not required, and paying your dues is for losers who are too ugly to get on reality TV.” (

  6. Venkat — Lin’s piece “Cellular” and the crystal diffraction pattern remind me of this stunning description from the first chapter of DAvid Abram’s “Spell of the Sensuous:”

    Late one evening, I stepped out of my little hut in the rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space. Over my head the black sky was rippling with stars, densely clustered in some regions, almost blocking out the darkness between them, and loosely scattered in other areas, pulsing and beckoning to each other. Behind them all streamed the great river of light, with its several tributaries. But the Milky Way churned beneath me as well, for my hut was set in the middle of a large patchwork of rice paddies, separated from each other by narrow, two-foot-high dikes, and these paddies were all filled with water. By day, the surface of these pools reflected perfectly the blue sky, a reflection broken only by the thin, bright-green tips of new rice. But by night, the stars themselves glimmered from the surface of the paddies, and the river of light whirled through the darkness underfoot as well as above; there seemed no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of starstudded space falling away forever.

    I was no longer simply beneath the night sky, but also above it; the immediate impression was of weightlessness. I might perhaps have been able to reorient myself, to regain some sense of ground and gravity, were it not for a fact that confounded my senses entirely: between the galaxies below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the constellations overhead, others, like graceful meteors, slipping down from above to join the constellations underfoot, and all these paths of light upward and downward were mirrored, as well, in the still surface of the paddies. I felt myself at times falling through space, at other moments floating and drifting. I simply could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies, and their reflections in the water’s surface, held me in a sustained trance. Even after I crawled back to my hut and shut the door on this whirling world, the little room in which I lay seemed itself to be floating free of the Earth.

    The only difference is, the images you share here are oriented horizontally across a vertical linear divide, while Abram’s description is oriented vertically across the horizotal linear divide of the horizon.

    Utterly fascinating stuff. Are you familiar with the field of cognitive archaeology?

  7. Paula:

    Never heard of “cognitive archeology” … any good online refs?

    Having been to Bali, and seen those rice paddy scenes, the passage does resonate :)


  8. Sam Penrose says

    Enjoyed this, and many of your other posts, tremendously. Writing to encourage you to give Tufte a chance. He has his shortcomings, but neither lack of larger vision nor lack of interest in the ineffable is among them.

  9. Its mind blowing information it will be useful for me.

  10. Don’t worry about this being TEDesque. Unlike many TED videos, this article gets to the base of a clearly defined question. TED videos often take a vague concept and show some vague applications of the concept.