7 min read

Three types of beauty in science

Three types of beauty in science

After surveying nearly 3500 scientists around the world and interviewing more than 200 of them, we've discovered that there are at least three distinct types of beauty in science. The first has to do with the beauty that scientists encounter in nature and in the phenomena they study; the second has to do with beauty that scientists consider useful for scientific inquiry; and the third is the beauty of understanding or insight into how reality works.

Beauty 1

We might call this simple beauty. In our research, we find that 75% of scientists encounter beauty in the objects and phenomena they study. They find beauty in cells and in stars, in patterns they observe under the microscope, in animals, and so on. For instance, a friend of mine in Montreal sent me the below image of a nerve receptor, which might easily be mistaken for a calligraphic work of art.

Thick section photo micrograph of a complex nerve receptor in a dog's anterior cruciate ligament, silver nitrate stain. Courtesy of Nicholas Newman BSc, MD, FRCSC, Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, Université de Montréal.

Beauty 1 includes the beauty of nature in its symmetries and its simplicity as well as its complexity. It also includes the beauty of elegant equations that scientists encounter in their work, which can render complex phenomena simple or link seemingly unrelated phenomena or levels of reality.

This kind of beauty provides scientists with delight in their work on a regular basis. It’s also what draws many to science in the first place. For instance, as a British astrophysicist told us:

one of the reasons I found space interesting is, because it's very different from our earthly life and so, when you then study space, you do see actually how beautiful, how exotic, how big, how energetic it is.

Similarly, an Italian biologist who switched from computer science told us what prompted his decision to do so:

I must say that seeing the cells under the microscope, understanding how to work on them, that was a bit of a switch for me, something that told me, well, this thing is beautiful and above all it's completely different from what I was doing, and that led me to the path that I followed.

Still other scientists find beauty in the objects they create, such as robots – as one UK biologist told us: “I definitely see the beauty … in the robots, and how they perform. A bit like when you see a robot in a car factory, they're quite precise but quite graceful, deliberate movements.” Similarly, an American physicist talked about the beauty of massive telescopes: “these are just beautiful pieces of machinery. They’re – if you like technology, they’re like technological cathedrals...”

Beauty 2

The second kind of beauty is what we might call useful beauty. Beauty here is seen as useful as a guide to truth—a heuristic or shortcut. Scientists may rely on aesthetic properties of objects, such as simplicity, symmetry, aptness, or elegance, in order to guide their decisions.

The discussion around the usefulness of beauty tends to be found predominantly in theoretical physics, where many prominent scientists have talked about the value of mathematical beauty in guiding theory choice. For instance, Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann claimed that “in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be correct than a theory that is inelegant.” Another Nobel Prize-winner, Paul Dirac, went so far as to say that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”

I’ll say a lot more about Beauty 2 in a future post exploring how and why beauty is used as a heuristic. But for now, it should suffice to say that while Beauty 2 has many proponents, not everyone is enamored with it. One reason is that historically, many beautiful theories turned out to be wrong, while ugly ones turned out to be right (and once they were, they no longer were considered ugly). Planetary orbits, for instance, were once believed to be circular because the sphere was the perfect shape; adjusting to the fact that the data suggested elliptical orbits required an aesthetic shift.

Some argue that today we are similarly in a situation where the established aesthetic sensibility in the field is no longer aligned with reality. Physicist Jim Baggott complains that theories of super-symmetry, super-strings, the multiverse and so on—driven largely by beautiful mathematics—are “not only not true; they are not even science”; they are “fairy-tale physics.” Sabine Hossenfelder similarly contends that aesthetic criteria have become a source of cognitive bias that is leading physics astray.

In our survey, we found that scientists were divided when it came to the reliability of Beauty 2: there was more disagreement than agreement overall regarding whether beautiful mathematics was a guide to truth (34% disagree vs. 27% agree) or whether elegant theories were more likely to be correct than inelegant ones (39% disagree vs. 23% agree). In both cases, physicists were more likely to express agreement than biologists were, but even among physicists, the majority did not support the heuristic view of beauty. As to Dirac’s claim about beauty in equations being more important than experimental support, a whopping 70% of physicists expressed disagreement, while only 9% agreed with the statement.

Still, regardless of their heuristic value when it comes to scientific theories, aesthetic criteria like elegance may be more useful when it comes to experiments. It makes sense that a good experiment should be elegant – allowing for accurate measurement, minimizing confounding factors, and so on. More on this topic of beautiful experiments later.

Beauty 3

The third kind of beauty is what we might call the beauty of understanding. The beauty here lies in grasping the hidden order behind phenomena, or the mechanism or inner logic that explains how some system works. This sentiment is expressed best by one of our respondents, a US biologist who talks about beauty as a kind of aesthetic recognition:

It is recognizing… ‘this is what’s going on.’ ...  There’s a leap to the truth or a leap to a sense of generalization or something that is beyond the particular but in some way represents the real thing that’s there, the real thing that’s going on... We think of that as beautiful.

This statement resonates very much with the insight of James Matthew Wilson, the poet I interviewed in my last post, regarding what makes poetry beautiful: it is the recognition that “this particular thing here resonates with the broader patterns of reality as such. And when we encounter that, we're encountering beauty. And when we encounter that kind of beauty, we say, ‘Yes, this is how things are.’"

So this third type of beauty is about insight into the deeper structure of reality, where you might experience reality as disclosing itself to you. So here, it’s not just the outward appearance of a pattern that matters, but rather the grasping of that inner logic of how reality works. And this form of beauty is what a lot of scientists suggest is really what makes the scientific process worthwhile. In our survey, we found that

·      86% of scientists report that they were thrilled by a new insight at least a few times a year

·      83% felt their research opened up new mysteries to explore, at least a few times a year

·      61% felt a sense of reverence or respect about what they were discovering, at least a few times a year

·      60% ascribe beauty to “hidden order or patterns” and to the “inner logic of systems” and

·      57% say encountering beauty “improves scientific understanding”

This form of understanding is experienced as meaningful and is something that you want to share with others. It is it is what makes your conversations in the scientific community worthwhile. As another US biologist told us:

The beauty is that when we all sit together, we all learn something from each other. We all spread this education or knowledge, what we have to teach other. And finally, at the end of the day, we come out of the room with something new.

The prevalence of this sort of beauty might allow us to call science itself as fundamentally an aesthetic quest: the business of science, in this view, is to gain some new insight or understanding about the world, which is experienced as a recognition and fitting-together of things that is deeply satisfying.

I think this form of beauty may be important not just for scientists. Rather, it might be something that the public needs to especially learn from scientists. Beauty 3 is an aesthetic experience that fundamentally requires openness to surprise, and even to changing one’s mind; intellectual humility seems to be a precondition for having such experiences in the first place. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman put it: “I do enjoy having been wrong, because it means I am now less wrong than I was before.” The pleasure here comes from an ability to love truth more than one’s opinions.

If beauty, as Dostoevsky suggested, will save the world, then in our polarized times it may be precisely through the power of this kind of beauty, which can pull us out of ourselves and our prejudices, to encounter a reality that can surpass our expectations and draw us ever deeper into its mysteries.

What do you think of these three types of beauty? Would you suggest other names for them? Do you think these modes of beauty are prevalent in other fields and in other forms of work? Do you think the argument for the importance of Beauty 3 is tenable? I'd love to know what you think. Please email me or leave a comment below.

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