Beauty in Science
Editor’s note: The blog post below from IACS Hancock Fellow Brandon Vaidyanathan, Ph.D., is the second installment in an ongoing series examining the role of beauty in our lives and in our work. Brandon is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Learn more about his research at beautyatowrk.net.
In 2021, my team and I conducted the world’s first large-scale study of the role of beauty in science. After surveying nearly 3,500 scientists and interviewing more than 200 of them, we’ve discovered three distinct types of beauty in science:
(1) Sensory Beauty has to do with the beauty that scientists encounter in nature and, particularly, in the phenomena that they study. They find beauty in cells and in stars, in patterns they observe under the microscope, in animals, and so on. We find that 75 percent of scientists encounter beauty in the objects and phenomena they study. This includes the beauty of nature in its symmetries and its simplicity as well as its complexity. It also includes the beauty of elegant equations that scientists encounter in their work, which can render complex phenomena simple or link seemingly unrelated phenomena or levels of reality. This kind of beauty provides scientists with delight in their work on a regular basis. It’s also what draws many to science in the first place. For instance, as one Italian biologist who switched from computer science told us what prompted his decision to do so: “I must say that seeing the cells under the microscope, understanding how to work on them, that was a bit of a switch for me, something that told me, well, this thing is beautiful and above all it’s completely different from what I was doing, and that led me to the path that I followed.”
(2) Useful Beauty has to do with beauty that scientists consider useful for scientific inquiry. Beauty here is seen as useful as a guide to truth — a heuristic or shortcut. Scientists may rely on aesthetic properties such as simplicity, symmetry, aptness or elegance in order to guide their decisions about what counts as a good theory. For instance, Nobel Prize-winner Murray Gell-Mann claimed that “in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be correct than a theory that is inelegant.” Another Nobel Prize-winner, Paul Dirac, went so far as to say that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”
But not everyone is enamored with this form of beauty in science. Historically, many beautiful theories turned out to be wrong, while ugly ones turned out to be right (and subsequently, were no longer were considered ugly). Some argue that today we are similarly in a situation where the established aesthetic sensibility in the field is no longer aligned with reality. Physicist Jim Baggott complains that theories of super-symmetry, super-strings, the multiverse and so on — those driven largely by beautiful mathematics — are “not only not true; they are not even science”; they are “fairy-tale physics.” Sabine Hossenfelder similarly contends that aesthetic criteria have become a source of cognitive bias that is leading physics astray.
In our survey, we found that scientists were divided when it came to the reliability of this form of beauty: there was more disagreement than agreement overall regarding whether beautiful mathematics was a guide to truth (34 percent disagree vs. 27 percent agree) or whether elegant theories were more likely to be correct than inelegant ones (39 percent disagree vs. 23 percent agree). In both cases, physicists were more likely to express agreement than biologists were, but even among physicists, the majority did not support the heuristic view of beauty. As to Dirac’s claim about beauty in equations being more important than experimental support, a whopping 70 percent of physicists expressed disagreement, while only 9 percent agreed with the statement. Regardless of their heuristic value when it comes to scientific theories, aesthetic criteria like elegance may be more useful when it comes to experiments. It makes sense that a good experiment should be elegant – allowing for accurate measurement, minimizing confounding factors, and so on.
(3) The third kind of beauty is what we call the Beauty of Understanding. The beauty here lies in grasping the hidden order behind phenomena, or the mechanism or inner logic that explains how some system works. This sentiment is expressed best by one of our respondents, a US biologist who talks about beauty as a kind of aesthetic recognition:
“It is recognizing… ‘this is what’s going on.’ … There’s a leap to the truth or a leap to a sense of generalization or something that is beyond the particular but in some way represents the real thing that’s there, the real thing that’s going on… We think of that as beautiful.”
This type of beauty is about insight into the deeper structure of reality: the hidden order beneath appearances, and the inner causal logic of systems. And this form of beauty is what a lot of scientists suggest is really what makes the scientific process worthwhile. In our survey, we found that
- 86 percent of scientists report that they were thrilled by a new insight at least a few times a year
- 83 percent felt their research opened up new mysteries to explore, at least a few times a year
- 77 percent ascribe beauty to “hidden order or patterns” or the “inner logic of systems”
This form of understanding is experienced as meaningful and is something that you want to share with others. It makes your conversations in the scientific community worthwhile. As another biologist in the U.S. told us: “The beauty is that when we all sit together, we all learn something from each other. We all spread this education or knowledge, what we have to teach other. And finally, at the end of the day, we come out of the room with something new.” This form of beauty contributes to building and sustaining the scientific community.
The Beauty of Understanding fundamentally requires openness to surprise, and even to changing one’s mind; intellectual humility seems to be a precondition for having such experiences in the first place.”
Scientists seem to see science itself as a quest for beauty: a quest to gain some new insight or understanding about the world, which is experienced as a recognition and fitting-together of things, and this experience is deeply satisfying.
I think this form of beauty may be important not just for scientists. Rather, it might be something that the public needs to especially learn from scientists. The Beauty of Understanding fundamentally requires openness to surprise, and even to changing one’s mind; intellectual humility seems to be a precondition for having such experiences in the first place. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman talked about experiencing a sense of joy in making mistakes and in changing one’s mind — you can enjoy being wrong if it means you’re learning something new. The pleasure here comes from an ability to love truth more than one’s opinions.
If beauty, as Dostoevsky suggested, will save the world, then in our polarized times it may be precisely through the power of the Beauty of Understanding, which can pull us out of ourselves and our prejudices, to encounter a reality that can surpass our expectations and draw us ever deeper into its mysteries.