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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19 Responses to On science, beauty and demystification…

  1. Pingback: The Lost Artist | Supernova Condensate

  2. invaderxan says:

    …and even better. If you know how something like that works, it gives you some idea of how to recreate it!

  3. I completely agree… I think things are much more beautiful if you know how they work!
    Eg. birefringent beetles. Rather than thinking “ooh shiney”, it’s much more awesome knowing why the colour changes when you look from a different angle. It’s very impressive!

  4. It is rarely “just a job”… I think maybe for some people, they got burnt out at some stage and lost their motivation.
    People don’t tend to become scientists just to make money…

  5. invaderxan says:

    It’s certainly regrettable that, as the adage goes, it takes all sorts to make a world. Through various means, I’ve met a lot of people from a lot of different scientific backgrounds. Every now and again, you meet someone who can’t wait to get their PhD so they can go into business consultancy or someone who holds a scientific title but might as well just be a manager.
    And don’t let your image be shattered. For every one to whom science is “just a job” there is at least one to whom science is a lifestyle choice. It has to be said, also, that astronomers tend to be amongst the latter. Perhaps because, as Sagan said, astronomy is a humbling and character building experience…
    Furthermore, I’m glad you got your curiosity back. It seems to me that children are taught not to ask questions because they’re “not sensible”. Teaching kids to not want to learn seems, to me, to be the greatest irony in modern human society.

  6. invaderxan says:

    Re: I agree
    I think it has to be said that astronomy holds a certain fascination that can’t be found in other sciences. All science holds beauty if you know where to look for it. With astronomy though, it’s quite literally staring you in the face!
    Thanks for stopping by. :)

  7. Anonymous says:

    I agree
    I, myself a scientist and astronomer, was told several times by people that knowing too much about the stars and the universe would take the romance out of star gazing. I couldn’t disaree more and agree more to your article, I think it ADDS excitement rather than taking anything away. Why should knowledge destroy beauty? I never quite got that.

  8. mutantgene says:

    I was educationally neglected as a child among other things, and so I would spend the majority of my childhood and early adult years scientifically illiterate. As a young child I was a wannabe-scientist without the education, the knowledge, or the tools to answer the multitude of questions I had running through my mind. The environment I lived in discouraged me from asking “why” or “how” and “what would happen if…”. At some point I stopped asking those questions, only sometimes looking at the sky and aching to understand what I was looking at.
    Once I “graduated” high school (technically I was homeschooled) I spent the next four years educating myself. Something happened along the way. I found my inner child again. Eventually the “beautiful background” became the focus of all my attention and the more I understood it, the more alluring and accessible it became. Science can’t take away all of the mystery anyway. The more we find out, the more questions there are. Going on this never-ending journey to understand is the best part because the more we find out, the more we imagine and the more we want to explore. Sterile, it is not.
    I have to admit, when I read this…
    “While it’s a sad fact that there are a number of scientists I’ve met who fit this image…”
    my jaw dropped. Reading this shattered the image of what I always thought a scientist should be. I can’t imagine what motivates these scientists. Science, to me, could never be “just a job”.

  9. invaderxan says:

    Hi. Of course I don’t mind. :)
    Pleased to meet you!

  10. invaderxan says:

  11. Hello there!
    I reached this journal through and I immediatly took the liberty of adding it to my frinds-list, if you don’t mind. :)
    Thank you!

  12. invaderxan says:

    I was hoping somebody might catch the reference. ;)
    (Though in truth, the phrase just seemed to fit!)

  13. 6_bleen_7 says:

    This may be before your time, but in the 1980s the phrase “billions and billions” was iconic Carl Sagan. Did you know you were channeling him in the fourth paragraph? : )

  14. invaderxan says:

    That works. :)

  15. ryttu3k says:

    I can’t follow that up, so I’ll just say THIS.

  16. invaderxan says:

    To be honest, that’s possibly the greatest thing astronomy has done for me. When I look at a night sky, I no longer simply see the sky. I see places. Myriads of them. And more than simply seeing places, I see our place. Just one amongst the uncountable multitudes…

  17. Hear, hear! The more I understand of the universe, the more amazing, the more breathtaking, the more beautiful, it appears to me. What’s more amazing, a bunch of little dots of light or knowing that they’re enormous objects, many of them larger than the Sun, and even the smallest of them many many many times bigger than the Earth? Knowing that they’re so far away that it takes light many years to reach Earth, centuries for some of the stars? That, to me, is far more amazing than “Oooh, pretty lights”

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