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Beauty,Spring 2005
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The Beauty of Science


Alice Stead

In Philip Fisher's essay, "The Rainbow and Cartesian Wonder," he poses the question, why do we see a rainbow and wonder; "that is, why [does it] elicit science rather than a stable self-contained delight" (Fisher 38) . Certain experiences cause us to ask questions, to explore further their origin. We cannot merely accept our experience as being aesthetically pleasing and leave satisfied. This, in effect, is the basis of science: curiosity. There is never an end to the questions we can ask when have a scientific experience. Fisher's example of the rainbow presents exactly this issue. We see this optical illusion and know there must be some explanation behind it. We feel an urge to understand why this happens, to understand how the exact combination of light, rain, and clouds produces such vibrant colors.

Descartes theorized that, "wonder is a sudden surprise of the soul that brings it about that the soul goes on to consider with attention the objects that seem rare and extraordinary to it" (Fisher 46). This theory applies to my experience with the flame test we did in class. When I dipped the piece of wire into one of the clear liquids, copper for example, I was surprised that an emerald green flame appeared when placed in the flame. The color was mesmerizing; I repeated the experience at least four or five times. It took several trials for my brain to be convinced that I was really seeing it. I became curious; at the time all I saw was a clear liquid, with no label. When I saw the green flame, I immediately wanted to know what caused the color. Once I discovered it was copper, I wanted to know in more detail why the copper produced green, and why the potassium produced purple. I was intrigued, so I asked more questions. Through talking to some chemistry students and reading about it, I learned that the position of the valence electrons in the copper and the other elements causes them to each produce a unique color when placed in a flame. Each element has a specific make-up and a specific number of valence electrons, thus allowing scientists to distinguish an element based on the color flame it produces. Another thing I learned was that one does not need to be a chemist to make a discovery; I asked questions and found answers. I do not need to be a scientist to do science; all one needs is curiosity and passion.

Giving order to something large and seemingly chaotic seems to be the essence of science. This gives science its beauty, but it is a different kind of beauty. There is some element of aesthetic beauty in science, the colors of the flame test, for example, but this notion of order in seeming chaos is an entirely different aspect of beauty. This can apply to everything from the flame test, to a simple equation. A. Zee finds beauty in symmetry and simplicity; he has "faith that Nature has an underlying design of simplicity" (8). However, it is difficult to see the symmetry and simplicity when looking at a piece of copper. But scientists have found a way of zooming in on what the atom looks like, and finding a molecular structure and formula for each element. Kenneth Chang explains that, "with a mere handful of symbols, those equations describe almost all phenomena in the universe" (12) . Chang is speaking about mathematical equations, but the principle is the same. Chemists have whittled down the complexity of the atom and found a way to describe it in a very precise and compact way. A. Zee believes that "certainly the Ultimate Designer would use only beautiful equations in designing the universe" (Zee 3) . It seems impossible to be able to say that as we look at a piece of copper we know what the atoms that make up that metal look like. However, once scientists found the means to understand the atoms, they could explain how each element, and compound is made. Each structure is very simple and symmetrical; it is breathtaking when we see the element itself and its molecular formula next to it. Roald Hoffmann argues to the contrary, that beauty does not lie in simplicity, but in something that lies somewhere in between simplicity and complexity; it is a sort of dichotomy in nature; "beauty does not reside in simplicity. Nor in complexity, per se. For a molecule or a song, for a ceramic vase or a play, beauty is created out of the labor of human hands and minds. It is to be found, precarious, at some tense edge where symmetry and asymmetry, simplicity and complexity, order and chaos, contend" (4) . It is impossible to say that this theory or Zee's theory is always correct. Beauty is something we cannot put into a formula or explain scientifically. Equations and molecular formulas may be beautiful in themselves, but there is no formula for beauty.

In many ways the experience of the flame test is comparable to Fisher's example of a rainbow. He uses the rainbow as an example of an experience that causes wonder and thought. Rainbows are fascinating because they occur under very specific conditions. The most fascinating aspect about them is that they would not occur without the human eye to observe them. Fisher argues that it is because they are rare, and yet common enough to know that they really exist that that we find them so beautiful. According to him, "beauty visits, never stays" (36). The flame test fits under this definition of beauty; the test produces intense colors that fade rather quickly. Is this why we find it so mesmerizing: because beauty has some kind of temporality? Contrary to a rainbow, the flame test can be reproduced at any time. While the color lasts only a short time, it can be reproduced as many times as one desires. Perhaps if the metals were always these bright colors we would not find them as beautiful. They would be mundane, everyday experiences.

In order for something to remain beautiful, it must stay "long enough to be noticed and enjoyed, never so long as to outstay its welcome" (Fisher 35). However, this theory cannot always hold true. It is a valid theory, but only to a certain extent. A waterfall for example appears mostly the same day to day, but we can continually find it beautiful. It never enters into the realm of mundane. However, there is probably more curiosity about rainbows, or lightning, for example, because of the aspect of time. Lightning and rainbows occur under special circumstances; phenomena such as these elicit much more curiosity than a waterfall. This is the reason Descartes and Fisher believe that the rainbow possesses so much beauty; "the sudden appearance of the rainbow, its rareness, its beauty are all part of this initial act of striking us, trapping and holding our attention by means of beauty and the unwilled response of wonder" (Fisher 40). During the flame test, intense colors are created, inciting wonder and questions; what causes that to happen? The response to both a rainbow and the colors produced from a flame test are very similar. We wonder how the combination of sunlight, rain, and clouds can produce this spectrum of color in the same way that we wonder how a colorless liquid can produce such magnificent colors each time it is placed in the flame. There is a feeling of awe at the initial revelation of color.

Experience is different for each individual; the experience of science can be very subjective. Is there a point when one is satisfied with the answers we have? This may be what distinguishes the scientists from the non-scientists. A non-scientist may be curious, but may eventually be satisfied with the answers they have. A scientist is probably never satisfied with her answers; she will continue to ask and pursue some other truth. This is what Fisher would call the "psychology of discovery" (Fisher 33). Every person can be a scientist, and make discoveries, even if they have already been made before. This is the beautiful thing about science; contrary to what one might think, science is not just for scientists. We perform scientific experiments every day, maybe without even knowing it, just by wondering and being curious.

1. Fisher, Philip. "The Rainbow and Cartesian Wonder." London: Harvard UP, 1998.

2. Chang, Kenneth. "What Makes an Equation Beautiful". New York Times. 24 October 2004

3.Zee, A. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

4.Roald Hoffmann. "Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry" www.americanscientist.org.


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