Questions about Beauty – what it is, where it came from, how we think of it, and where it might be hiding – have somehow bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness this week through some rather divergent social interactions. Not sure if the congruence means anything more than that my mind has somehow connected different experiences – but I want to share some of them with you anyway! I hope these samples below lead you to make your own connections.

Let’s start with an old argument: the question of what is beauty and whether science diminishes our appreciation of it by analyzing it too much. The poet Wordsworth worded it thus a couple hundred years ago:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

But do we really just murder beauty to study it? Must we?

My favorite response to this not uncommon charge, that science robs us of beauty, comes from physicist Richard Feynman, in this excerpt from “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out“:

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How about that?

Meanwhile, as this book review suggests, the tables have turned yet again, and we biologists have also come back full circle (kinda) to Wordsworth’s plea against reducing the essential beauty of nature whole by analyzing its dissected parts – but with a much deeper understanding acquired over the scientific journey of the intervening 200 years. A journey entailing lots of dissections. A journey during which we have also acquired a beautiful theoretical framework upon which to hang some of our notions of beauty, and begin to understand how and why we find beauty in the things we find beautiful. That beautiful theory was developed, of course, by Charles Darwin! In this week’s TED talk, philosophy professor Denis Dutton elaborates upon Darwin’s evolutionary framework to explain why we are so hard-wired to seek beauty:

In these economically depressed times, however, we are not doing a very good job of nurturing that evolved innate need for beauty that resides within us. Instead, we emphasize practical value and economic return over the pursuit of any purer aesthetic or scientific goals. Sadly, and most alarmingly, this is happening even in the universities, where such pursuits are supposed to flourish and be protected from the vagaries of economic need or fickle short-term profits! Case in point: the recent decimation of several language, classics, and theatre arts departments at SUNY Albany (a state university not unlike mine, I shudder to think), where the bean-counters running the university decided that these areas of scholarship and education were expendable in times of economic strife and could be eliminated to save a few bucks without compromising the university’s mission. Really?! Who better to defend our beleaguered colleagues in these Humanities programs than a Scientist? You simply must read biochemist Gregory Petsko’s brilliant critique of this Faustian bargain. And spread the word so that defenders of this quest for beauty may rally around to keep the philistine barbarian hordes out of  our future generation’s education!


Finally, it turns out that several people are looking for Beauty on the internet! Specifically the poem “Beauty” written by the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, which may or may not have made it on to the internets yet. Have you come across it? Would you let me (and the other seekers linked at the beginning of this paragraph) know if you find it and / or help it climb on to the web?

2 thoughts on “Beauty

  1. Pingback: Feynman’s Ode to a Flower, animated | Reconciliation Ecology

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