Beauty in science
When we think of science, we often associate it with words such as rational, methodical, analytical, and objective. It’s meant to be unemotional, detached from personal interests. Rarely, if at all, do we associate the word “beauty” with science.
Indeed, there’s a longstanding critique of science that it reduces or even strips away the beauty and mystery from reality. Think of the English romantic poet John Keats, who complained how "cold" scientific philosophy would
clip an Angel's wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air / and gnomèd mine— / Unweave a rainbow…
But scientists in recent years have been speaking out against this caricature. Richard Dawkins, for example, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, argues that
The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living ...
Another example is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. In this short clip, he talks about his argument with an artist friend who, like Keats, accuses him of only being capable of reducing the beauty of a flower.
Feynman insists that his understanding of science “only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.”
Numerous other prominent scientists insist upon the role of beauty in science. Consider, for instance, Paul Dirac who argued that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” Or Murray Gell-Man: “in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be correct than a theory that is inelegant.”
So we see a real tension between the public perception of science as foreign to the realm of beauty, and the accounts of these prominent scientists who have highlighted aesthetic dimensions as being central to science.
But is beauty just the prerogative of geniuses and celebrity scientists? Or does it characterize the everyday experience of ordinary scientists? What does beauty mean to them anyway? When and where in their work do they experience it? And does it matter to them?
I first began exploring these questions as part of a major international study of scientists' views of religion. And the answers I started getting were so enthusiastic and fascinating that I set out to conduct the first ever international study of scientists to examine the role of beauty, awe, and wonder in scientific inquiry. We surveyed thousands of physicists and biologists in four countries (India, Italy, UK, and USA) and found that most scientists encounter such aesthetic experiences with some regularity in their work, and these experiences not only shape the practice of scientific inquiry, but are also vital for well-being (e.g., job satisfaction and mental health).
In future posts, we will dive into the findings of this study in more detail. But for the moment, here is a taste of what we found:
• 75% of scientists encounter beauty in the phenomena they study (e.g., cells, particles, etc.)
• 75% say science helps us better access the beauty that exists in the world
• 66% say it is important for scientists to encounter beauty, awe, and wonder in their research
• 62% say encountering beauty motivated them pursue a scientific career
• 62% say encountering beauty in their work motivates them to share the beauty of science through teaching or mentoring
But what exactly do they mean by beauty and how does it play a role in their work? Stay tuned to find out.
In the meantime, however, let me know if you have any guesses.