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Beauty to an Appreciator of Science

Alice Kaufman

I take exception to the implied segregation of 'science' and 'art.' To label myself as a scientist is limiting, as all labels must be, and I don't think my appreciation of beauty is in any way unique to science. Even worse are the categories of 'scientist' and 'humanist.' It is true that science is not bounded by human-created phenomena, but what is math, our interpretation of these outside phenomena, but a creation of man? These are seemingly arbitrary rules of conduct that yield certain results, which stand alone as 'true,' but are completely manufactured. It is gymnastics of the mind. I cannot think of any work of literature that is more humane than x= vt+.5at^2. The equation itself describes a motion independent of people, but people have formulated it, giving symbols meaning and rules and creating it to help explain the world people are experiencing. In this sense, math based science is hugely humanistic. There is also a sense that an equation would be true whether it has been created or not—like great art before an artist has created it, they exist on a different plane, waiting to be experienced.

When I finish a math problem, I feel like I'm staring at slightly iced-over snow, shining in a night sky with a great deal of moonlight, but no obvious moon. There are no trees or buildings. There aren't distractions in this part of my mind, nothing jutting out of the ground to disturb the smooth, slightly undulating landscape I feel when an equation works. If I feel this way, the answer makes sense; the steps I take are nimble but assured, and the ground won't fall out under me. This total understanding doesn't happen often, but when it does, when my brain clicks and suddenly it's in harmony with the person who wrote the problem, it is beautiful. The harmony is like a transverse wave; I imagine my little brain patterns working to combine with whatever my professor or math book author was thinking. I understand.

In other fields of science, I can feel the same sort of connection—I feel that I can understand what someone is trying to convey; what someone wants me to see. But this is most clear with math and physics. Physics is just math describing things happening, or math is just the method of understanding physics, depending on which department one asks. Both depend on symbols and numbers to work out relationships. It's true that these symbols aren't real in the physical sense, but they take away the warped way people see the world. Our life and experiences affect the way we interpret the world; if they did not, we would be inhuman. But math, which by some miracle comes from our minds, can be interpreted in only one way. It is what it is. We can say a statement is 'true' or it is not, but we cannot say that a mathematical statement means well, has a crush on another statement, and is worried about what will happen to it once a person has stopped formulating it. It is a perfect moment of existence; an equation just is. I have not reached enlightenment. I cannot just be. The equation may have no reflection on its Buddha-like existence, but that is all the more reason I admire it. There is a process of mathematics that brings this equation, or set of equations, into being, but it does not cease being. There is no end, or real beginning. I can begin, saying that 1+1=2=1+1=2 ad infinitum, but before I began typing it, 2 already equaled my first 1+1. To consider the world of math and physics as a purely human creation is therefore all the more mind blowing.

Scientists are typecast as highly literal, practical people. Some are. But I am classified as a scientist, and the concept of an equation that I understand connects me to the universe in a way I cannot explain, to something transcendental and eternal. It is a path to God.

My God is perhaps just a form of personal truth, elevated out of personhood. But physics in general challenges me to continue seeking truth, because as perfect as equations can seem, there are so many that are unsolved, or undiscovered. It is my job to try to understand this strange world; if I have to make temporary conclusions on the nature of things, I will have to reconcile my thoughts to them. Most of the world's physicists believe that at a very fundamental level, some processes are random. They believe that even if we had better equations, infinitely better equipment, and an infinite capacity to process data, we simply cannot predict what will happen next, because the universe at its very core is unpredictable. There are some physicists who are 'hidden variablists,' people who believe that there is some force, some phenomenon that we don't yet know about that would explain this randomness. It is possible that we will never see or be able to see this new variable, but they strongly believe that it exists. I admire both camps. Accepting the idea that existence is at its core chaotic seem so peaceful. Yes, the world is crazy, but by accepting that, one can begin to cultivate peace within oneself. But it's a little inspiring to think of a troop of scientists march off in search of something that very possibly doesn't exist. That's faith that I don't think I can ever attain, and I envy them. There's something beautiful about a doomed quest. Of course, if the quest isn't doomed, if they are right, and there is an order to the world, satisfied zealotry is wonderful to see and experience. This is what makes science beautiful, the chance that things may appear differently tomorrow. Our knowledge can grow, but will always be incomplete.

On a more earthly tangent, I did not find the physics demonstrations particularly beautiful, except for the superconductor causing the magnet to float. When asked by Hannah if the wine glass demonstration would be more beautiful if it used real glass and water, I said yes, because there would be more at stake, requiring greater trust in the theory. She then went into a dreamy explanation of why it wouldn't enhance the beauty at all, because the true beauty was in the success of the demonstration because of the forces, and it shows that the theory is correct. It was wonderful to hear, and her explanation had beauty. I see her point, but disagree. The conveyance of the idea in this way is not important to me; I found it inadequate as an explanation. The beauty of a demonstration lies in the faith people have in the theory; the leap from paper to more corporeal reality. And the beauty is the most extreme when we need the theory to work the most, and it does. Hannah was right in that the theory of motion is beautiful, but I don't think that that can be conveyed through a literal demonstration. A free body diagram of a yo-yo doing an 'around the world,' now that shows the essence of kinematics. Arrows are drawn to represent forces, and one can see immediately what is happening and why. It is a much more efficient and direct way of showing Hannah's point about the beauty of forces. It just isn't dramatic or visually pretty.

The superconductor was beautiful, because it was visually pretty, and proved theories about magnetic field lines. When a student is told about fields, her is told to 'imagine invisible lines flowing all around charges, magnets, and even masses, that don't do anything unless another charge, a magnetic material, or mass is in it.' It is hugely manufactured concept. But when one sprinkles metal filings over a piece of paper, which in turn is over a magnet, one can see real lines formed by the filings. They are following the field lines—the picture arrows drawn in textbooks, which seem so much more abstract and unreal than forces, actually exist! The superconductor causes the tiny magnet's field lines to squeeze out; with such strength that gravity is overpowered in the half a centimeter above the superconductor. It works because, for mysterious reasons, special materials seem to refuse to let magnetic fields in once below a certain temperature. It is awe-inspiring for me.

Sciences like chemistry make me see the interconnectedness of more physical things, instead of the ethereal. Atoms vibrating and fitting together just so, and the world is created. That's amazing and beautiful. Our world is mind-bogglingly complex, and yet we've made a dent in understanding it, enough to begin comprehending just how inconceivable it really is. A nice paradox in there, but it's still amazing to me that we've made any dent at all. How incredible that we have a good working understanding of the insides of structures that no human can ever directly experience! Even more astounding is our knowledge of structures that even our best machines cannot directly experience. Things can be discovered and understood based on their affect of other, larger things. I find comfort and beauty in the regulated and highly organized study of plants and animals, even if the organization is completely created by the scientists studying them. In the physical sciences, there is a distinct promise of order and meaning. Some over arching patterns must begin to appear, and life appears highly well-regulated, and all the more incredible, because of its preciseness.

There is real whimsy in much of science, perhaps heightened by the austere, strict rules of research. "Truth" and "Beauty" were the first names given to newly discovered fundamental particles. Scientists have in-jokes and private instances of glee, unfortunately closed to the experiences of the general public, because of the cultural bias that advanced science to be some hallowed, terrifying ground that just isn't open to others, and the continuing problem of the ivory tower. Scientists need to reach out more, to other academic fields and the public, to build an understanding of scientific principles. The world would appear much more amazing.

Some faith is required to accept what we experience as real, in believing that what we see is not an anomaly of our brain but exists dependably outside of ourselves. But once that is assumed, our world expands exponentially; so much can be experienced and known. Science encourages me to explore more of the world, and to continue to search for more apparent truths. But a great painting with burning colors, poetry and balance inspires the exact same thing in me. Science has more mundane rewards in the search for new, life expanding knowledge, like CDs and hybrid cars. But that doesn't mean it is a more or less valid method of finding beauty.

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