Science is Wonder-ful

Steve alerted us to the awesomeness of today’s XKCD:

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While it seems obvious to me that science uncovers the beauty of the world – I mean, that’s what propelled me through a more than adecade of “higher” education in science – I’ve learned that a lot of people really do think that science takes the color from the world and eave greyness instead. I am reminded of this quote by Richard Feynman (a famous physicist and science communicator):

“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, you take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.

And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower that he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty….

Also, the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that a scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it can subtract.”

(See Feynman saying this here.)

I realize that in order to introduce some folks to science we must first reassure them that this will enrich, not diminish, the meaningful experiences of life. Many people find intense awe and wonder – emotions that some think reserved to religious experience – in discovering the world through science. I sure do. (I’m getting chills thinking about when I first learned about the genetic code; I walked around in an awed stupor for days.) The amazing ways that Nature works really is wonderful enough that we shouldn’t fear replacing any perceived “magical” experiences.

Anyway, thanks for so eloquently distilling all of this in your comic today, XKCD!

I'm a science artist and science writer involved in various informal science communication projects, such as jewelry based on molecule shapes, a quirky documentary on origin of life theories, and the Science Tarot. I have a PhD in molecular biophysics & biochemistry from Yale University and completed graduate work in science communication at UC Santa Cruz. I'm currently carrying on an off-grid homesteading experiment on the Big Island of Hawai'i.

5 Comments

  1. Jacob Bronowski says very much the same thing in “The Abacus and the Rose,” a short play that is appended to his classic book, Science and Human Values.

    Knowledge deepens appreciation, it doesn’t diminish it.

  2. That’s a wonderful way to say it! Thank you for the reference.

  3. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. I think some detractors of science do understand how science opens up further levels of what the scientifically minded consider beautiful, but they themselves would rather have a top level mystery and find any attempt at explanation unsettling.

  4. @Bjornar Your point about *mystery* vs. *beauty* is so interesting! Thank you for bringing that up. But – I think the same argument applies. Understanding the world through science opens up even bigger mysteries, like how does particle entanglement work? That’s the strangest thing… Or imagining the instant of the big bang. Do you think there’s a way to comfort the people you describe, those who appreciate the mystery of the world, by letting them know that even bigger mysteries can be found through learning about the world through experiment?

  5. @raven
    I think I’m already in over my head, psychological analysis-wise, but speaking for myself, as a scientifically minded person, I find the mystery of love to be a cuddly warm thing, while particle entanglement is pretty scary. I imagine that’s so for many others also.
    By all means give them some examples of how you find even more beauty as you delve deeper, but accept that they might not have the appropriate wiring to agree with you.

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