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Beauty,Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip

A New Kind of Beauty

Katy McGinness

"Real beauty has nothing to do with colorful pictures." What? I have long thought that colorful pictures, along with beautiful songs, sights, colors, etc., were part of the very definition of beauty. To me beauty was something that stirs the soul and the spirit; it can take various and often infinite forms, spawning feelings from all across the emotional spectrum, but at its core it is an emotional experience. I felt that nothing could be less emotional in the world than math or science (even biology, in some ways); these were the fields that stuffy, humor-impaired individuals pursued, right? Those fields were predominantly associated with the left hemisphere of the brain—the "rational," logical realm—whereas appreciation of beauty was largely a characteristic of the right hemisphere (or so my pop psychology magazines implied). For much of my childhood, I held onto this schismatic view of beauty and science until tenth grade, when I took high school chemistry. Simply put, I greatly enjoyed the class. I loved doing the experiments and creating organic things. I even enjoyed balancing chemical equations, although I never did get really good at it. When I was successful (at experiments or the mathematical equations), I experienced a satisfaction that could only be described as emotionally aesthetic. I would still hesitate to call this feeling beauty, however, simply because I cannot see myself experiencing the same intensity of emotions creating things in the laboratory that I experience listening to beautiful songs or going for a walk on a sunny summer evening (however, I must add that chemical reactions very often were very beautiful to me due to their colors, textures, etc.). I can understand how some scientists may experience emotions of such intensity (or more so, maybe) in the laboratory; beauty, to me, is subjectivity in motion. Wherever one's individual passions lie is where she will find beauty, I believe. I am not a math-and-science kind of person, so obviously I find it hard to get that choked up over scientific phenomena. But others do. What goes on in their heads? What makes chemistry, physics, or mathematics beautiful?

Sometimes, it seems obvious. Chemical reactions can be very colorful and bright; fireworks are chemical reactions, after all. The in-class chemistry experiment at Table 1 is an example that I can wholeheartedly deem beautiful. The colors of the flames upon sticking wires wet with various solutions into the Bunsen burner were truly magnificent (my favorites were the pinkish-lavender and the lime-green colors), but it was not just that; it was also for the fact that the wires had previously been this drab, industrial gray color, all bunched together like snakes, suddenly transformed into something indescribably beautiful. It reminded me of the episode of "The Simpsons" where the kids are forced to wear dreary black-and-white uniforms at school, but when the outfits get wet in the rain, colors start appearing—bright, multicolored pastel psychedelic designs (also a chemical reaction). This sweet liberation from authoritarianism is intensely emotional and beautiful. For me, the ugly wires were also being liberated (if only for a few seconds) from their natural state. Also there was the observation of the stunning cased butterfly (Table 2) with emerald green specks, golden specks, and baby-blue wing tips. Who could not find that dazzling array of colors gorgeous?

At other times it is more complicated. Many scientists have theories on what makes science and scientific theories beautiful. Physicist A. Zee contends in his book Fearful Symmetry that the most objective, agreed-upon criterion for judging something beautiful is its degree of symmetry of design. The more symmetrical an object is, the more beautiful (supposedly; for my own reasons, I would not always agree, although Zee's broader point makes perfect sense). Zee offers the example of the ancient Greeks finding the circle a more beautiful shape than the square or the rectangle due to its perfect—invariant—symmetry (Zee, 9-10). Zee holds that Nature is fundamentally simple; Professor Peter Beckman noted the exact same thing when he stated that the guiding principle of physics is "it must be simple." In fact, it is Nature's very simplicity that breeds the illusion of complexity at times, but this seeming complexity is only a well-organized part of Nature's whole design (Zee, 16-17). Back to the butterfly experiment, the harsh yellow, chalky residue from the butterfly's wings seemed pretty unremarkable (indeed, aesthetically unpleasing, as it had an unappealing sticky texture and it stained my fingers, leaving them a jaundiced color), but the fact that, before being scraped off the wings and mashed together, this dusty substance had previously been a gorgeous colorful butterfly wing was a fascinating and beautiful realization.

It is also Zee's related strong belief that the simplicity of Nature is what makes it beautiful—that what is simpler is more beautiful (Zee, 8-9). While I don't completely agree with this idea, one of the chemistry experiments illustrates it somewhat. Table 4's experiment required us to mix two identical-looking pale yellow solutions together by pouring both into an empty beaker simultaneously. The result was a very dark, navy blue liquid. The liquid itself was not especially pleasing to my eyes, but a sandy precipitate (also blue, but more striking) forming on the edges of the beaker was very pretty. The experiment itself was somewhat anticlimactic for me (it was the first experiment that my group did, so maybe I was expecting an explosion or something), but what I found so amazing was how fast it had happened. It seemed so simple, mixing two twin solutions only to be shocked by a new substance that resembled neither of the original solutions in the least. It brought back memories of the tenth grade, and the very act of remembering periods in my life is an extremely moving, powerful, and hence aesthetic experience of me. The simplicity of this experiment was the very basic act of pouring and then watching how fast the change occurred—it was truly automatic: blink, and you miss it. While the actual chemical reactions occurring were doubtless complex, their automatic qualities and their subsequent reliability (repeating the experiment would have garnered us the exact same results) were simple, neat, and aesthetic.

According to James W. McAllister, truth begets beauty in science. Believe it or not, aesthetics is often what guides scientists in making their revolutionary discoveries. In his article "Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories," McAllister describes how scientists across the ages have attached more aesthetic value to theories that have been found to be empirically correct (McAllister, 1-4). In fact, when theories are discredited as scientifically inaccurate, scientists will often cease to find them aesthetic and instead search for other signs of empirical truth upon which to attach aesthetic value. When this occurs, McAllister calls it a scientific revolution, and he cites the rise of quantum theory in the 1920s as an example (McAllister, 7-8). This idea makes intuitive sense to me, if only because it is psychologically comforting. We would like to think that we are being rewarded for making accurate scientific discoveries.

I have learned a great deal—beginning in the tenth grade but increasing in this particular section of this class—about how to at least try to not view the "hardness" of math and science as something inherently threatening. It is hard for me, because these were always the subjects that I struggled with the most in school. Beauty is comfort, and to think that such hard sciences can also be considered beautiful makes them feel less foreign to me.

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