Science Aesthetic

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of: beauty, taste, art. Aesthetics seems subjective and therefore opposite to scientific, yet it does exist in science. In fact, scientific aesthetics is so pervasive that we expect nature to be elegant, simple and symmetric. Any empirically valid result may be deemed incomplete due to the lack of any of these qualities. A big part of science is admirable, both visually as well as mathematically. Fractals are often mentioned as an example of visually beautiful mathematical objects. Other examples include simulations of emergent phenomena, nebulae and star clusters, elegant theories such the general theory of relativity, Maxwell’s equations, Euler’s identity. There is even a saying: nature loves symmetry. I could argue, this is what our brain loves too.

However, not all science is aesthetic. It seems that life is orthogonal to the definition of aesthetic. In the nature of life, “good enough” is good enough: according to darwinian evolution, the metabolism system that works - survives. It doesn’t have to be the most elegant system. There are different paths via which different life forms adapted to perform the vital functions. Therefore much of biology is potentially guided more-so by principles rather than laws and is also potentially irreducibly complicated. Even our attempts to quantify the principles of life as computable steps may be in vain. Does both animate and inanimate nature love symmetry?

In the internet age, aesthetics has also acquired another meaning: a visual art and sometimes a music style. It has departed from being a discipline in philosophy to being an adjective to an individual’s identity. This is such a vibe. That makes me wonder, what is science aesthetic?

I most certainly have experienced the aesthetic of science. As a kid, I admired encyclopedias. They are often full of beautiful images of dinosaurs, photographs of star clusters, graphics of Keplerian Solar system, drawings of the human body. Beautifully precise, detailed, and full of statements of facts. Later, as I grew older, I learnt about symmetries, groups, scaling laws, universality (I also learnt that facts are dynamic and change over time, as new data comes in, and we replace one theory by another, perhaps more accurate, more universal, or simply more useful.). There is much joy in arriving from a bloated expression to an elegantly short solution. Science is crisp, detailed, as minimal as possible.

And then there’s aesthetic of scientific writing. A research paper is beautiful, if it addresses a clear-cut problem that can be described in one sentence and explained to a layperson in a short amount of time. It also conveys a simple idea, a simple experiment that is produces an obvious and clear proof for a hypothesis. There may be equations involved, but only the core of them feature in the main text. The rest - see appendix X. Scientific aesthetic strives for a heroic story of embarking on a quest to resolve the grand problem, and after a gruesome fight, and many layers of onion peeled off, the fight is unilaterally won, as reported In conclusion. There are rarely reports of lost battles, rescue missions, enemies that escaped.

The true scientific journey quite often is on the margins of beauty. If the true quest of science is to find how the nature works, it shouldn’t strive for beauty, it should strive for realism, objectivity and appropriate contextualisation. The papers should be as long as they need to be and contain just the right amount of equations. Furthermore, there should also be a place for the lost battles in the reporting. Hiding imperfections is damaging for pushing knowledge forward. Imperfect results, ideas that are not all-encompassing and not clear-cut, models that are complicated have their place in science. Especially if they are useful in applications and are an alternative to nothing. The scientific quest is a discussion, perhaps even an argument, never a monologue encapsulated in one writing. A seemingly short quest often slowly burns and unfolds over many years only to culminate as something important.