A Bridge:  Science to Beauty

“Pulchritudo splendor veritatis”  (Beauty is the splendor of truth)

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”     ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, John Keats

“The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us.  It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity.  Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously…So we do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us.  We are not in it; we are outside.  We are only spectators.  The reason why we believe that we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies are in the picture.  Our bodies belong to it…Science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, of why and how an old song can move us to tears…Whence come I and whiter go I?  That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us.  Science has no answer to it.”      Erwin Schroedinger

In the days of Antiquity (Plato, Aristotle) truth reign superior over the beautiful.  The significance of the Beautiful among Truth and Goodness for understanding nature only became clear at the dawn the modern period.

On the road to truth (geometric logic) Pythagoras (570-495 BC) encountered beauty when he studied vibrating strings.  Pythagoras discovered that vibrating strings, under equal tensions, sound harmonious if their lengths are in a simple numerical ratio – the harmonic series:

Pythagoras discovered a hidden math within nature. Not a dry, pragmatic math, but mathematics as a source beauty. This discovery affected a breakthrough to entirely new forms of thought – that of an Ideal principle of form.

On his road to truth (logic) Plato (424-447 BC) developed the theory of Ideas where he contrasts the imperfect shapes of the physical world with the perfect forms of mathematics. He looked at the imperfectly circular orbits of the stars and imagined a mathematically perfect circle. Plato viewed material things as the copies, the shadow images, of an ideal form – the true reality. He showed us that the physical is only accessible through the senses and the purely Ideal form is only apprehended through the mind. That intuition often has the stronger hand over cognitive reasoning in the apprehension of Ideas.

In his observations of falling bodies, Galileo (1564-1642), who followed the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato, developed the mathematical laws of inertia. From Plato he idealized the facts of his observations and found beauty – simplicity – within his mathematics. Aristotle taught that all moving bodies not acted upon by external forces eventually come to rest (the general experience). Galileo declared, to the contrary, that in the absence of external forces, bodies continue in a state of uniform motion. Galileo could ‘force the facts’ because he could point out that moving bodies are always exposed to frictional resistance (air or surface) and that motion will continue longer if more frictional forces cut off. In exchange for this forcing of the facts, the idealization, the Beauty, Galileo obtained a simple mathematical law which marked the beginning of exact science.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) continues this scientific tradition in the study of planetary orbits. Kepler’s careful study of celestial observations led him to discover new mathematical forms. He kept himself close to the ancient arguments of Pythagoras and Plato for he compared the revolutions of the planets about the sun with the vibrations of a string and spoke of a harmonious concord of the different planetary orbits – a harmony of the spheres (ratio of orbital time and the chord). At the end of his work on the harmony of the universe, Kepler let out a cry of joy: “I thank thee, Lord God our Creator, that thou allowest me to see the beauty in thy work of creation.”  He was profoundly struck by the fact that he discovered a central connection which had not been conceived by man.

 

The beauty of the universe would be never understood until mathematics revealed its profound tapestry. Mathematics enters the universe from above instead of from below.



On his road to discover light and truth, German biologist and artist Dr. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) pioneered that other ‘telescope’ – the microscope. Haeckel’s study of sea life in the Mediterranean led to the discovery of the ancient remains of the Radiolarian – microscopic single-cell plankton with a glass-like skeleton created by the absorption of silica from the sea. Haeckel called the creatures ‘Proteus’ or protozoa.


 
Haeckel’s diary reveals his astonishment on the beauty of the radiolarian (1860):
“Every morning I am newly amazed at the inexhaustible richness of these tiny delicate structures. It is hard to believe each of these creatures is a single cell. Some are like grids or broken nets or stars. Others are like tiny bowls or helmets or bells. Still others like tender houses, windmills and fantastic towers. That I thrust myself with sheer passion on these scientific treasures which are simultaneously so pleasing to the aesthetic eye, you can well imagine.”

The conflict within Haeckel, between the scientist’s mind and the artist’s heart, between precision and passion, begins to melt away.

“Everything now came before me in new and beautiful and remarkable forms. I began to see and hear not only the outer forms but also the inner content – the nature and the history of things…The unitary idea of god which alone is compatible with our present knowledge of nature can never recognize in God a personal being or, in other words, an individual of limited extension in space or even of human form. God is everywhere”.

In his books “The Wonders of Life” and “The Riddle of the Universe”, Haeckel held that the world cannot be divided into the organic and the inorganic or into matter and spirit. He spoke of the lives of crystals and the souls of cells; as if the ancient sea were dreaming in its depths. Haeckel saw what today would be called a “self-organizing universe”. The radiolarian's existence is akin to a ‘slumbering’ nature awakening up and giving rise to future permutations of backbones to bridges – precisely Plato’s ‘visible, sensible God’.

We all live with a desire to connect to the beautiful. The beautiful brings pleasure and connects us to our vision of the Good and the True.

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