The Faculties of Arts and Sciences

Avi Loeb
6 min readJan 23, 2024


Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Eden. Mauritshuis, The Hague (1615)

At the beginning of my new class for the spring semester at Harvard University yesterday, I asked the students to introduce themselves, mention their favorite hobby and why they care about the Universe. The class was at overflow capacity, and the responses took a while. One student noted that her hobby is to look at the sky and wonder about questions that are bigger than those contemplated by politicians in Washington DC. Another student said that his hobby is in the arts. I asked him what is the main difference between arts and sciences?

The student explained that art deals with the interaction of humans with the world and I added that physics studies the interaction of instruments with physical reality. Most scientists believe that Albert Einstein’s equations would have been derived by other scientists if Einstein had not lived. However, Pablo Picasso’s paintings would have never been made if Picasso had not lived. This is because art depicts the subjective impressions of individuals and each artist has a unique mode of expression.

I further suggested that the creative process feels similar in arts and sciences because both explore the unknown through iterations. Being wrong and correcting ourselves is part of the learning process.

My insights stemmed from recent interactions with several artists who were inspired to produce new works of art by my scientific work. They included a sculptor, a song writer, a photographer, a poet, a painter, a writer, a filmmaker, and a playwright.

My latest correspondence with the playwright, Josh Ravetch, was particularly revealing. He emailed me a report about his latest adventures in opening the one-woman-show titled “In Vogue” that he wrote for Beverly Johnson in New York City:

“Dear Avi: The last two weeks have felt like one long day in New York City…Exactly fifty years ago, Beverly Johnson made history as the first black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue In one interview, the interviewer said, “Look at the list of one-person shows you’ve done. Carrie Fisher, Dick Van Dyke, Diana Nyad right at the moment she swam from Cuba to Florida, Dorothy Hamill, and now Beverly Johnson on the fiftieth anniversary of arguably the most important magazine cover in American black history.” She then asked, “How do you know before anyone else that the zeitgeist will land ’there’ at a moment in the future and you are already there with the next precisely correct person standing in that spot. You must have a crystal ball.” I said, “It’s not a crystal ball, I travel to the future and see who everyone is talking about and then I come back to the present and find the person about three years before that moment comes.” There was a delicious moment where the interviewer looked at me as if she almost thought I was being serious. Beverly interrupted and whispered, “I think that’s his sense of humor.” Then the interviewer asked, “Any recent trips to the future?” So, I said: “Yes, but it’s gotten more difficult because, y’know, the time travel paradox.” She was now having a bit of fun, “Okay, smartass, who did you see?” And I replied: “Harvard Astrophysicist, Avi Loeb. The man who is casting a scientific spotlight on an entire area of our universe that has been ignored involving the real possibility of intelligent life in the cosmos.” She laughed, thinking I was trying to be hyperbolic and Beverly said, “No, that’s the man. I read that script. He’s amazing!”

My reply to Josh was short:

“Dear Josh, Wonderful to hear from you. I am delighted to hear about the success of Beverly’s play… In the old days, people with your insights into the future were honored with the title “prophets”. But I do not exclude the possibility that time travel might be possible for you in case “closed timelike curves” are allowed by quantum gravity.”

This exchange captured some of the differences between the faculties of arts and sciences. And by `faculties’ here, I mean `inherent mental power’, not academic departments in a university.

Josh wants me to perform the one-man-show he wrote about my scientific research, titled “A Piece of Sky”, in New York City during my summer or winter breaks from teaching at Harvard. At first, I was reluctant because it means that I will repeat the same narrative every night during the performance period. And so, I negotiated a provision that every performance will end with a unique Q&A session, in which I could learn something new from the audience. My wife, Ofrit, suggested that this experience would be no different from the classes I give at Harvard, where I repeat known material and answer questions from the audience. Indeed, for the first public reading of the play in front of an audience, I prepared for a few hours as I do for my classes. That reading did not go as well as I had hoped for, but the Q&A was fantastic. And so, I learned the big difference between the performing arts and teaching a class, encapsulated in three important principles: “practice, practice, and practice.” In preparation for my next public performance, I will allocate much more time to memorizing the written text than I do for my classes.

At the conclusion of my new class, I explained that in science the litmus test for understanding reality is that we are able to use this understanding for our benefit. The scientific understanding of quantum mechanics allowed us to build chips, computers, cell phones, the internet of things, airplanes, self-driving cars or artificial intelligence. The scientific understanding of gravity allowed us to build GPS systems for navigation, spacecraft that reach the Moon and solar system planets, to fly the “ingenuity” helicopter on Mars, or to position the Webb telescope at the second Lagrange Point in the Earth-Sun system. Understanding the physical reality that surrounds us, including the most fundamental question of whether smarter scientists reside on exo-planets in our cosmic neighborhood, offers the great benefit of adaptation to that reality. The arts describe the human aspects of the adaptation process and inspire new visions as a result of new scientific knowledge.

What does it mean to be human? For me, it is to pursue scientific knowledge that survives the guillotine of experiments and to act on what we learned in front of an audience in the Big Apple. I inherited these “apple” traits from the myth of Adam and Eve who could not resist eating an apple from “the tree of the knowledge”, and their act exiled them from staying as an integral part of nature. Indeed, an apple brought about modern science, when in 1666 Isaac Newton studied the nature of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".