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Beauty,Spring 2005
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The Way I See It: Intellectual Abstractions of Experienced Beauty

Kat McCormick

There is nothing that I find as beautiful, as mysterious, or as awing as the occurrence of sentient life. How unlikely, in a planet that is one of billions, in a universe that tends toward chaos above order, that the available atoms would have arranged themselves into structures that, together, would eventually produce enough centuries of thought to have named the very atoms that composed them? Much less to have based entire fields of study on how precisely this was accomplished. This is perhaps the root of my interest in neurobiology: I find it so deliciously ironic to be immersed in a study where the primary tool of study is in fact what is being studied: using a brain to model a brain. Using my brain to study other brains. I find the brain, its perceptions of beauty and its capabilities, and the irony all to be equally entrancing.

The apparent mutual exclusivity of entropy as a universal law and the underlying ordering process implied in the origin of life is a fascinating arena of thought. It is this strange awareness of life (or self) as something that begs for an explanation that is thought to have spawned religion on a worldwide level: we need an explanation for how this came to be. Perhaps our first universal awareness is that sentience is a thing of great wonder. Realization and reflection on sentience and on the origin of life in general continue to be among the most captivating of all my experiences. It is my wonder at this phenomenon, a la Fisher (1), that causes me to go in search of an explanation. Fortunately for me, I am not the first search for this explanation, and so the field of biology was opened long before I came to be. I am able to pursue my wonder to more depth because of the work that was done before me. Because I am particularly concerned with sentience, I am particularly concerned with the brain.

In my research, there have been very specific views that I find to be very visually beautiful. I perform research on the leech, an animal which most (including me) would argue is less than beautiful. But I really find the magnification process beautiful, laying out the nervous system and examining its brain: the varied, ordered city of cells, replete with complexity and depth. Again, I am filled with wonder at the processes held within it: such a small thing, with so many small components, with such complex interactions, all for the purpose of performing the (relatively simple) tasks of keeping that little leech body alive. These cells tell it when to swim, when to crawl, when to be still, and when to feed. I am filled with wonder that this is not entirely different from the way my own brain operates, although the tasks my brain has to perform to keep me alive are more complex by orders of magnitude. At times I am astounded by the interplay between these two seemingly so different things- how could these cells, sitting in a dish, as I observe them through a microscope, possibly relate to what I am now thinking about them? Although my work is in relating these two things, this relation is not what I find beautiful about the process.

All this wonder is secondary to the wonder and beauty I see and feel at the instance of things being alive. What I find beautiful in my research is a derivative of what I find beautiful as a human. And while I think that this is true as a scientist, I suspect the same is also true for those involved in other disciplines: the painting is beautiful as an abstraction of what the eye perceives as beautiful in the human. The poem is beautiful as a description of what the human poet finds beautiful in life. The intellectual work of finding beauty is in distillation, derivation, abstraction, and description. This secondary beauty can be greater, even, than primary beauty- or it can be less. The magnitude is unimportant, but what remains is that disciplinary distinctions of beauty that are academically or intellectually created are not, in essence, different.

In the course forum, Flora Shepherd (2) recently stated her perception of physics as “sort of a huge mental sculpture of the world. It’s not an accurate replica of our world, but it models the world as best it can… All the textbooks are just representing something bigger and infinitely beautiful.” This, for me, illustrates the point quite nicely: sculptures are highlights of parts of the world that the artist wants to convey to his audience, often abstracted into something recognizable, but not a replica. After reading Flora’s ideas, I began to see a world superimposed with all the mental abstractions that physicists are concerned with overlayed. This juxtaposition between the human experiences of beauty in the world, primary experiences with our own five senses, and the abstractions of the world, intellectually created, which can also be very beautiful, is something which I find more beautiful, and stupefying, than either experience individually. In fact, it is more than additive: the sum of beauty of these two experiences in juxtaposition is greater than the sum of its parts. This is something which I claim is not particular to scientists, I find the abstractions of the world presented in literature equally beautiful. I see beauty no differently as a scientist than I see it as a human.


1) Fisher, Philip. "Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences". Harvard University Press, 1998.

2)Beauty Course Forum, Flora Shepherd, comment 12881

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