The concept of beauty in science

Due to human prejudice, we often find the shapes that nature produces beautiful. The honey bee nest building astonishes, for example, with its hexagonal structure. Sometimes these wonders help spark scientific invitations. Therefore, it was the sense of sublime that I had as a teen studying beautiful images of cloned galaxies in Atlas that drove me to pursue a career in astronomy. As convinced by exchanges with scholars from various disciplines, such aesthetic feelings experienced during adolescence are at the root of many professions.

However, does this attraction to the beautiful have a role to play in the scientific process?

In his autobiography, British biologist Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of a DNA molecule, believes that the impact of this discovery is due in large part to the intrinsic beauty of the double helix of DNA: It is a molecule with a style … Advertise. Indeed, we appreciate this aesthetic dimension when we see different representations of a DNA molecule, such as an elegant double-wrapping of a whole host of phosphate molecules, sugars and nitrogenous bases.

However, let us clarify one point related to this aesthetic feeling in science. If the aesthetic experience of the painter or musician often involves emotion in the act of creation, then the world on his part proceeds differently: in his approach, he must not be influenced by preconceptions or emotions, which can distract him and lead him to make subjective choices. However, it is not all that most scientists know, in a magical moment in their careers, that such excitement is when confronted with a finding or discovery. As in front of paintings by Johannes Vermeer or sculptures by Michelangelo, I felt a shiver at night while watching the sky. You talked about an event like this on Notebooks of the Astrophysicist (MultiWorld, 2013): “From above Mauna Kea, I saw amazing meteor storms and meteor stars, such as Leonids in November 2004. […] I remember a certain race car crossing half of the sky to explode against the constellation Orion, as if the Sky Vault had unleashed the fall of the mythical character. “

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In this regard, Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanian Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983, has written an interesting book on the experience of beauty in science (Truth and beauty. Aesthetics and Motifs in ScienceUniversity of Chicago Press, 1987). Try to explain why we consider something beautiful in science. Thus, two criteria were set. The English philosopher Francis Bacon I wrote: “There is no true beauty, not surprising in proportion.” The second was formulated by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg: “Beauty is the compatibility of parts with one another and with the whole.”

The general theory of relativity, which links and approximates the concepts of space and time, fully satisfies these two criteria put forth by Chandrasekhar. That time and space become Siamese is strange, and their merging results in a unified unity that makes us understand that time seems to slow down in a space that the masses are bending. For its part, the aforementioned DNA double helix structure appears In the aftermath Surprisingly simple: it allows us to understand how a group of molecules activate the multiple processes of living things, and brilliantly explains the mechanism of inheritance through the splitting of the double molecular chain and the subsequent attachment of its parts to the mirror parts of living things. Same gender, but different sexes.

However, this aesthetic feeling can be misleading. In the history of science, it turns out that the models that were proposed because of their beauty were sometimes fake. The most famous case in this regard is that of the astronomer Johannes Kepler. For him, the arrangement of the planets could not be irregular, “as if it were the result of a seeding opportunity,” because “God is always a geographical measure.” So the young Kepler proposed an amazing engineering model of the solar system in order to explain the position of the planets around the sun.

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Relying on Euclid’s Thirteenth Engineering Book, he overlapped a tetrahedral, two-faced, two-faceted, and eight-faced into each other, then drew circles around them and got six, corresponding to the orbits of the six planets known at the time (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, planet Jupiter and Saturn). Despite its elegance, the Kepler model was flawed. However, the young German astronomer had the advantage of applying a new geometric and mathematical precision to describe the positions of the stars. Which he brought New Astronomy (1609) to derive his theory of the orbital motion of planets as ellipses. But this time, his description was more revolutionary because it was mathematically accurate and simple.

As this Kepler example proves, we must be wary of the idea of ​​beauty in science; It could be a trap. But that in no way prevents me from admiring the blooming iris, the invisible hummingbird, or the whirlwind of one hundred billion stars from Messe 51 galaxy twenty-three million light-years away.

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