On science, beauty and demystification…

“Science takes the romance out of things.” This was an offhand comment made to me in conversation at the pub the other night. Is that really what people believe? Apparently, it is. It’s regrettable, but I suppose the old stereotype of scientists being unable to appreciate the beauty in things is still going strong. While it’s a sad fact that there are a number of scientists I’ve met who fit this image, it’s certainly not true of all of us (indeed, the same is true of many non-scientists too). It may be the case that some scientists might scoff at the concept of beauty and dismissively explain away the natural phenomena which cause aesthetics. In my opinion, these scientists are doing it wrong.

To me, science unveils a myriad worlds of beauty which our fragile minds could scarcely have imagined if we hadn’t taken the time to understand how it is that they exist. In turn, understanding how beauty can come about can only serve to heighten the fascination it holds, even for the beauty we’re already quite familiar with.

Consider a sunset. There are few people alive who haven’t taken at least a fleeting moment to appreciate the majesty of a sunset. The resplendent colours which fill the sky and the long shadows cast across the face of our planet. And if anyone reading this has never stopped to watch a sunset, I heartily recommend that you do. Take a second to appreciate how enthralling nature can be. You won’t regret it.

But take a second also, to consider exactly what it is you’re seeing. Three million times as massive as the Earth and almost 150 million kilometres away, the Sun is the source of all of these colours. Light from the Sun spans this huge distance at a dazzling speed, reaching planet Earth in just over 8 minutes. As that sunlight reaches our atmosphere it illuminates the billions and billions of molecules which make up the air. Even though air, to us, is completely transparent, the individual photons which make up that light can bounce haphazardly off these molecules, scattering in all directions. The light which is scattered most is blue light, which is what gives our sky the deep cerulean hue we admire so, on a warm summer afternoon. At sunset though, the sunlight reaching us has passed through so much of our atmosphere that there’s very little blue left in it. This is why at sunset, the sky is reddest when it’s low to the horizon, fading through orange and yellow higher in the sky.

Beauty is not a magic trick. Understanding how it works doesn’t detract from its magnificence. If anything, the realisation of the sheer magnitude of what you’re seeing should make it all the more captivating. Captivating, and ever so slightly humbling, with the realisation that each of us is just a tiny part of a huge planet, in a huger solar system. In an unimaginably vast Universe.

Just try and tell me that scientific understanding isn’t beautiful.

“It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”
— Carl Sagan

Image credit: Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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