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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Seeing Beauty as a Scientist

Alanna Albano

How exactly does an undergraduate student scientist try to view her experiences of science and beauty through the eyes of a highly regarded professor of chemistry? If that student is also a chemistry major, how does she go about seeing such experiences from the perspective of a prominent theoretical physicist? These are the questions that I will attempt to answer as I, a student chemist, look at beauty and science through the lens of Dr. Roald Hoffmann, a chemist, and Dr. Anthony Zee, a physicist. Both men describe the search for beauty in their fields. Hoffmann equates beauty in chemistry with creative labor, and this labor includes drawing out a detailed structure of a molecule, as well as devising a narrative in order to tell how a certain chemical compound was discovered. Simplicity is by no means a basis for beauty in chemistry, and Hoffmann attests to this concept. Zee, on the other hand, equates the beauty in physics with the "symmetry" of physical laws (symmetry meaning that the laws remain consistent throughout their applications to various situations), as well as their simplicity.

Hoffmann tells stories about chemistry as a way of making the inherent complexity of science more palatable and more simple; in other words, he wishes to disguise the complexity. Zee instead uses his physics stories to bring out the simplicity that he believes is hidden beneath many layers of complexity. As I describe my accounts of various scientific experiments encountered in and out of the classroom, I will show how both scientists' ideas explain or do not explain my experiences of beauty as a student scientist.

My English 249 class met in the Park Science Building to conduct a series of general chemistry experiments. The first experiment involved observing and touching a yellow powder called "xanthopterin." This is the pigment that is found in butterfly wings; and, the most extraordinary thing about this pigment is that its molecular structure looks almost exactly like a real butterfly. In the second experiment, we poured two clear liquids together, and these produced a cloudy, gray-colored solution. After heating for a few minutes in a water bath, we observed that a shiny silver metal coated the bottom of the vial. This experiment is formally known as the "Tollins Test." The next experiment that we did required taking a metal wire, dipping it into an unlabeled solution, and then placing the wire into the tip of a Bunsen burner flame. Each solution produced a different colored flame, such as purple or green. In the fourth experiment, we mixed two clear, unmarked solutions together and created a dark blue liquid (which turned out to be a pigment called "prussian blue"). The last experiment that we conducted also involved color change. We overlaid different colored transparencies on a lighted desk in order to determine what new colors they would make, if any.

The experiments were presented to us in a very simple way. We were given unmarked substances, told to mix and to note any observable changes, and to not make any inquiries about the specifics of the experiments until everyone was done. This was extremely frustrating for me as the student chemist, because my scientific curiosity demands that I know why and how the chemical changes happened in the way that they did. I have to know the underlying chemical reactions and interactions that are responsible for making the color changes that I saw, because as a scientist I am trained to question and analyze my observations. I think Hoffmann would understand my frustration. Hoffmann admits that, although the human mind is naturally inclined to look for simple answers in an increasingly complex world, simplicity often fails us in this type of world. I believe the last part of his statement to be true, because in my experiences as a scientist I have found many instances where simplicity was largely disappointing. My experiences with the aforementioned chemistry experiments are one example. Another example is when I first found out that the majority of the colors that we see around us are not all pure. This was quite in opposition to what I had learned in grammar school, that the color I see is exactly the color that is there. So much for the simple color wheel!
Looking back at the first part of Hoffmann's statement, I am not too sure that I agree with his idea that the human mind instinctively craves simplicity. First of all, I question what he means by "human mind." Does he imply a science-oriented mind, a non-science one, or both? Since he does not specify, I will speak for one with a science-oriented mind. Yes, at times I do crave simplicity; for example, if there are two possible ways to walk to a store in town, I will most likely choose the simplest and most direct route. If I am given a choice of readings for a class, I will probably choose the ones that are simpler to read. On the other hand, when it comes to science I do not want the simple version; rather, I prefer the most complete explanation of a scientific phenomenon.

As a scientist himself, Hoffmann certainly cannot deny that he prefers to know the full details of a chemical discovery. Frankly, it is quite a challenge for anyone to avoid the complications that often arise in science. That is why Hoffman's response to the lack of simplicity in science is to formulate an aesthetically pleasing narrative to convey the science to others without getting bogged down with all of the numbers and analytical data. However, when it comes to science, I do not want the most simplistic explanation. I want to be told the full story of a scientific happening, not just a delightful little narrative of the scientific discovery. For example, if I am presented with the choice of learning about a scientific study done on the human speech gene through an article in the newspaper versus the article in a scientific journal, I will choose the scientific journal article. The journal article is a first-hand account of what happened during the study of the speech gene; those who conducted the research know best about the gene, and are most qualified to be writing about the specific details of the experiments. Therefore, I can rest assured that what I am reading is accurate information, as complicated as it may be. The newspaper article, as simple as it is to read, may not be as accurate because it was written by a second or third party; and, it is very likely that this party was not involved in the original research (and they may not even be actual scientists!). It is true that stories are pleasant and fun to read, but sooner or later I desire to know the full explanation.

Where do I see beauty in the chemistry experiments that I conducted? The beauty is found deep below the surface of what I see with my naked eye. When I see a solution changing color, I think about what molecules are in those solutions. I think about how those molecules might be interacting with each other, and what kind of a reaction or equation would describe those interactions. I even consider how the electrons might be behaving in the molecule, and how they are responsible for producing the different colors seen. I also ponder which scientists possessed the intelligence to create these different experiments and determine what was happening chemically in them. According to Hoffmann, beauty is created out of the labor to produce it. I think it is beautiful that molecules must perform work to yield some sort of chemical change. I also find it beautiful that scientists must use their hard-working hands and minds to bring about that change.

My English 249 class met in the English House to conduct some physics experiments. One table contained a "center of mass" experiment, in which two forks were delicately balanced on a toothpick that rested on the edge of a ceramic mug. Another experiment had two buckets filled with liquid nitrogen, and when students dipped inflated party balloons into the nitrogen, the balloons shriveled and shrank until they looked and sounded like crumpled-up balls of cellophane. Upon removing the balloons from the nitrogen, they slowly expanded until they reached their original size. This time, it was explained what was physically going on with the experiments if students asked.
For me in particular, the physics experimental set-up was quite different from the former chemistry experiments because I was actually supervising the liquid nitrogen and balloons experiment. Rather than being a passive observer of the physics experiments, I was actively presenting a scientific experience to others. Obviously, this is not a strange scenario for Hoffmann and Zee, who are both active teachers. Thus, I was provided with an even better opportunity to view science and beauty through their eyes, and understand how they might want to convey their ideas to their students. As a temporary "teacher", I had two options: I could provide detailed information about the science that was happening, or I could choose to remain silent. I chose to provide the scientific details, but only if the other students wanted to know what was going on. Science and non-science students alike were interested in knowing, but some non-science students were not. I asked if any of them thought that the balloon in liquid nitrogen experiment was beautiful. Some students declined to answer, and others said no. One remarked that perhaps her inability to see any beauty was due to the fact that the experiment was not really aesthetically pleasing to any of her senses. This was unlike the chemistry experiments, in which the color changes observed were beautiful and pleasing to her eyes. I asked if knowing the physical law of what was going on would add to their experience of beauty or diminish it. Most responded that knowledge of the law would diminish it.

It seems appropriate to now ask how I, a student chemist, see beauty in these physics experiments. Again, it is the same as the chemistry experiments. I see the beauty by considering the physical forces and interactions at work, as well as the molecular interactions that occur to bring about the changes observed in the experiment. I also find beauty when I think of the equations that summarize and connect these interactions. This is right in line with Zee's claim that we continue to see more beauty when we think about science and nature on deeper levels. When a physical law, like the ideal-gas equation of state, stands the test of time and yields consistently reasonable data throughout tried experiments, then I find great beauty in that law, as well as the physical phenomena that it describes. Thus, I am in agreement with Zee's view that a physical law that proves itself to be symmetrical or consistent is indeed beautiful.

However, Zee's belief that beauty in physics is directly equivalent to the simplicity of the physical law is not very appealing to me, nor do I accept his belief that beneath all the outward complexity of the physical world there is an underlying simplicity. From my perspective, the simplistic-looking appearance of a physical law does not automatically give it beauty status. If that physical law is applied to a number of experiments and gives consistent, reasonable data for those experiments, then that law has proved itself to be beautiful without a doubt. Much to Zee's disappointment, I can even go ahead and complicate matters further by stating that certain simple equations may only remain beautiful up to a certain limit. For example, consider the ideal-gas equation of state. This equation works wonderfully for all gases that behave ideally, with no types of changes in their pressure, temperature, or volume. Now, what happens if some of those physical parameters change? The ideal-gas equation no longer suffices, and a much more complex (and much uglier, in Zee's opinion) equation must be used to account for the new changes in the gas, as well as to produce consistent and reasonable data in experiments.

Zee's idea that simplicity is at the core of nature's complexity just does not seem possible to me. Can Zee really convince me, a student who studied quantum mechanics for a semester, that underneath all of the chemical reactions that happen, the interactions between individual electrons and electrons and photons exhibit simplistic behavior? It is hard enough trying to explain what an electron truly is and how it behaves, let alone understanding what it may do in an excited molecule! If nature were truly simple underneath, then many of the equations describing molecular interactions in my quantum chemistry textbook would cease to contain partial derivatives, triple integrals, and various mathematical operators. Do I still find these equations beautiful? Yes, because of the intricate physical phenomena that they describe, as well as the consistency of the data they provide in various experiments.

Roald Hoffmann and Anthony Zee have profoundly influenced the way I view beauty as a scientist. Although we do not always see eye to eye on the different connections between beauty and science, we all seem to agree on two things: beauty certainly lies in the eye of the beholder (the chemist view vs. the physicist view, science-oriented vs. non-science oriented) and great beauty can be discovered when we look beyond the outward appearance of a scientific law or experiment and try to search for the deeper meaning underneath. Beauty is guaranteed to be found in all areas of science, but no one person will ever perceive the exact same experience of it.


Hoffmann, Roald. "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry."

Hoffmann, Roald. "Narrative." American Scientist Online. 2000.

Zee, Anthony. Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1999.

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