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Beauty,Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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Beauty, as Seen in Science: A Fictional Work

Nancy Evans

Narrator: You can't tell a scientist equations aren't beautiful. It's like telling a mother her newborn baby isn't beautiful. Sure, the baby is red and purple, covered in various and sundry bits of God-knows-what, and screaming (with or without the token bit of matted down hair), but the mother sees that baby as something more-- something perfect. A little bundle of potential and love and beauty that will unfurl one day and show its wonders to the rest of the world. But the mother sees first, and so does the scientist. This isn't to say that an equation can bring the same joy and pain or inspire the same kind of selflessness that a child can, but for some of us scientists it's pretty close.

I imagine you don't understand, and I don't expect you to. For some of you, equations are nothing more than numbers and letters arranged on the page for you by some old man who tried to make you learn about momentum with building blocks in high school. But that's not what I see. My mind jumps ahead, to the actualities of it all. The ways in which my numbers and letters affect your lives in ways we're still trying to explain. For scientists, it's more real than you would imagine. Let me show you how we see beauty ...

total energy = kinetic energy + potential energy + (other forms of energy)
Daniel Lyon, Chemist

I was sixteen and taking Mary out on our first date. She showed up at the door in a green polka-dotted sweater and my first thought was of me tearing it off of her in the back of my new car. I looked down so her mama wouldn't see me blushing and she called out after us as we walked down the drive, "Y'all be good and, bless your heart Mary, button that sweater."

So Mary did button that sweater but not enough to keep my eyes from wandering down there every other twenty seconds during the movie I had paid for but wasn't paying a bit of attention to. I was glad I had picked a scary movie because at points her breathing would start to speed up and that top button would strain with the intake and threaten to pop open. And I wished more than anything that something would pop up on the screen and scare Mary half out of her wits so that button would go flying off and give me a better view. I was getting a crick in neck and Mary's shirt seemed in no mood to cooperate, so I scooted over in my seat and started to reach my arm around her neck.

Her hair smelled like the vanilla extract my mama used to make sugar cookies and I wondered if she was like that vanilla extract, smelling so good but so bitter on your tongue you wish you'd never risked the taste. At any rate, my hand was moving around her shoulder and she leaned a little closer to me so I kept on going. My first two fingers found their way to that button, the only thing keeping that green polka dot sweater closed, and I couldn't reach all the way to get it open. By this point, I was sweating a little bit and didn't know if Mary knew what I was up to and didn't care or was too busy watching the movie to pay any attention.
I still couldn't quite reach that button and so, holding my breath the whole time, I raised up in my seat and made quick with my fingers at the top of Mary's sweater. She screamed and at first I thought she was going to slap me but then I realized everyone else in the theater was yelling too and that Mary's green polka dot sweater was undone and who knew if it was me or the fright that had done it but for a sixteen-year-old boy, it was the best day of my life.

Force = mass x acceleration
Catharine Clement, Physicist

I never knew my mother's story until I was twenty years old. All the bruises I thought came from bumping into tables—she was a waitress—and the streaks of makeup she explained away—we never saw her cry—and I never had any idea until I was twenty years old. I was home from college after my second year and anxious about how I was going to survive another summer at home. I had loved my hometown as a child, but now I felt trapped and stifled and I longed to be strolling across Boston Common with my university friends instead of wasting away as a research assistant in the middle of Iowa.

But there I was, for two months at least, a Harvard sophomore with dreams of becoming a physics professor making grilled cheese sandwiches for her little sister. Not that it mattered where I was if I couldn't keep any of my equations straight in my head. They were all just symbols and if I let myself think about the real world—a shopping trip downtown or lunch at Quincy market, for instance—those symbols all swirled together and became one big mass of meaninglessness. The professors who handed back my exams were liberal with their red pens and stern in conferences: "You show great promise, Catharine, as a scholar, but you are failing to connect with your work."

That was true and I spent long workdays thinking of these comments and mentally preparing myself to Get Serious! about my work. I remember one afternoon in particular I was entertaining thoughts of leaving college and traveling abroad for a few years. What was science, anyway, other than a lot of made up nonsense? The world would keep turning and everyone's lives would keep going on without scientific explanations for it all. That afternoon I left work early with a newfound sense of frustration with my chosen field. It meant nothing to me.

As I neared my childhood home I heard my father's voice, louder than usual. Then my mother's, sounding more panicked than I had heard before. I flung open the screen door to see my father's giant fist ball up and reach back, the knuckles white with transferred anger...mass... he swung, propelling his hand forward with deceptive ease. It quickened as it neared its target... acceleration... and struck my beautiful mother with such force... SUCH FORCE... that her body crumpled to the floor. I would never ask for the knowledge to explain in such precise and emotionless terms what happened to my mother that day, nor would I ever give them up.

Work = force x distance
Nancy Evans, undergraduate

When put this way: work = force x distance, I understand science. I understand that the pages that stretch out in front of me can become an insurmountable distance away from the letters I am typing right now. I know that the force behind these words—my thoughts, my understanding of the assignment, and my understanding of science itself— intermingles with the distance and I am working. Nancy Evans is working. But is this science?
I'm a humanist. I know there are scientific principles at work here, but what are they doing for me? The distance is also affected by my thought processes, the mistakes I am making while typing this up, the noises in this room that are distracting me. None of these things can be nailed down by exact scientific principle that is never wrong. And somehow, in this paper on equations, randomness comes into play. The random choice of one word over another, for example, that affects the force, the distance and the work. Perhaps it is the interplay of science and humanities that allows me to best see how these things can be seen as beautiful. Perhaps I have to temper the science with a bit of something familiar in order to see its beauty. I guess I am an untrained eye for seeing this type of beauty on its own.

Narrator: You see? I told you you probably didn't see it like we do. But that doesn't mean you can't. There is a difference in seeing things as a scientist that you might never imagine existed. It means seeing something so tiny, so minute—like a cell or an atom, and knowing that it means something bigger than itself. That it is part of something so much larger and each individual brings with them their own connotations of what the something larger should be. And that's just... it's just beautiful.

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