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Artistic Perception: Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone
Bill Franklin
Citation: The Physics Teacher 41, 255 (2003); doi: 10.1119/1.1564516
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Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers
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Artistic Perception:
Vision and Art: The
Biology of Seeing,
by Margaret Livingstone, Harry
N. Abrams, Inc., New York (2002)
208 pp., hardback, $45.
Harvard neurobiologist Margaret
Livingstone provides an art tour that
many in the physics community will
find fascinating. She begins, somewhat apologetically, with a chapter
on physics. It is soon woven in with
biology to reveal some of the mysteries of color and vision, and eventually our perception of art.
It is truly amazing that we can
construct a full-color, three-dimensional awareness of the world around
us from the distorted and colorblurred, two-dimensional images
projected onto our retinas. Our apparatus for doing so is vastly more
complicated than that of the camera,
with which it is often compared.
How do we cope with blind spots
where the optic nerves preclude receptor cells? How can we achieve
color balance under widely different
lighting conditions, and with a set of
color receptors that are about twothirds red, one-third green, and only
one percent blue? How can everything appear so clear when only in a
small central region are our receptor
cells packed closely together and relatively unobscured by other cells?
Some of the details are yet to be explored, but the author does an excellent job of explaining what is known.
What really distinguishes this
book, however, is the way that LivTHE PHYSICS TEACHER ◆ Vol. 41, April 2003
ingstone has related the known features of the visual system to our perception of art, with emphasis on
those painters who have exploited
these features to enhance the illusions they produce. Illusion is indeed what painting is about. As
spelled out in the book, “artists must
look at a three-dimensional scene
with their two-dimensional retinas
and then generate a two-dimensional
painting that appears three-dimensional to viewers who look at it with
their two-dimensional retinas.” Each
aspect of our vision is illustrated with
examples of painters who have mastered the means of fooling it.
It is luminance, perceived lightness, that allows us to fix things in
three-dimensional space and to detect movement. When objects are
distinguished by color, but not by luminance differences, we have a hard
time pinning them down. This can
be used by artists to produce apparent motion in a static painting. Because luminance is so much more
important than color in locating
things, color applied imperfectly to a
crisp outline seems to fill the outline.
Shading can be used to make things
appear rounded on the flat surface of
the painting. Contrast can be used
to enhance both luminance and color. These points and others are beautifully illustrated by examples ranging from 14-century Madonna paintings to contemporary images generated with the aid of computers. They
include Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile
and those uncountable black dots at
the intersections of white lines on a
black background. Special attention
is paid to the paintings of Monet.
Read this book and you will surely
gain a deeper appreciation of his
Despite her obvious love of art,
the author claims no artistic ability. I
have very little myself, but I could
hardy wait to try using her ideas to
improve my painting. So far, I have
to report that ability does not easily
follow from knowledge, but I think I
am going to have fun trying. I am
sure that I will look at all painting,
including my own, with new eyes.
In the epilogue, Livingstone
moves beyond art to consider dyslexia, drama, and the wider question of
the physiological basis of our differing abilities. She suggests that the
differences in our nervous systems
may well determine our strengths
and weaknesses in ways that mere
practice cannot overcome. In these
days of test-driven education, it is refreshing to hear her say that “perhaps
we could afford to try to teach to
children’s strengths rather than their
weaknesses. Often when children do
poorly in reading, they end up
spending more time than their classmates working on their ‘reading
problem.’ I would be inclined to try
to figure out what those kids are really good at and to let them forge
ahead in those subjects, as long as
functional competence in reading
could be achieved.”
In closing, I cannot refrain from
mentioning the foreword by Nobel
Prize winner David Hubel. I suspect
that most of you will be as astonished
as I was to hear him say of the neurobiology of vision that “the possibility
of communicating our science to our
friends and neighbors is exhilarating,
and in many ways I feel sorry for my
friends in physics, whose lives must
be relatively lonely.”
A Fun Way to Figure Physics:
Mad about Physics:
Braintwisters, Paradoxes,
and Curiosities,
by Christopher P. Jargodzki and
Franklin Potter, John Wiley &
Sons, xvi + 304 pp. (2001).
filled with famous quotations and
interesting extraneous information.
For example, a mosquito pushup
requires energy of 1 erg or 10-13
JD*. Many of the answers are supplemented by references to the literature (AJP, TPT, Physics Today,
Scientific American, and other readily available resources). This is a fun
book with great questions to stimulate your students.
I am very pleased to see this book
published. I was asked to review an
early manuscript to recommend
whether or not it should be pubReviewed by:
*Jelly doughnut
lished. I liked it then and like it
Bill Franklin even more now. There are 397
7016 Edmond, Waco, TX, 76710; questions with answers spread
Reviewed by:
John L. Hubisz through 12 chapters with a common
Box 8202
DOI: 10.1119/1.1564516
connecting theme. The margins are
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-8202
DOI: 10.1119/1.1564781
Cartoon by Sidney Harris
THE PHYSICS TEACHER ◆ Vol. 41, April 2003
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