Tag Archives: beauty in science



Electron micrograph of one mitochondrion within a mouse liver cell (hepatocyte).  The cytoplasm surrounding this organelle contains free polyribosomes, cisternae of rough endoplasmic reticulum, glycogen granules, and vesicles.  May 20, 2015 © Dr.M   (http://.dr-monsrs.net)
Electron micrograph of one mitochondrion within a mouse liver cell (hepatocyte). The cytoplasm surrounding this organelle contains free polyribosomes, cisternae of rough endoplasmic reticulum, glycogen granules, and vesicles.      May 20, 2015 © Dr.M   (http://.dr-monsrs.net)


As a scientist, I believe that I also am an artist!  My science is my art, and my art is my science!  I am not referring only to esthetic beauty of the output from scientific research, but also to the mental beauty found in numbers and equations, spectroscopic curves, theoretical concepts, and crystallography.  Science certainly is distinctive, but also has many similarities to art.

Similarities and differences between science and art. 

The standard opinion is that science and art are nearly opposite endeavors.  My own view is that  science and art often are interchangeable!  Art frequently is a representation of something real or imagined, and so is analogous to a model or hypothesis in science.  Art can be quite stylized (e.g., portaits), and so can the output of science (e.g., histograms of measurements).  Both art and science are produced by an individual or a small group of people, and usually reflect some of their special skills and personal characteristics.  A sculpture by a modern Italian artist differs in style from a sculpture produced by an Inuit artist even if they use the same stone and depict the same subject; such differences can be described with language and words for art, or with numbers and measurements in science.  Sculpted figures clearly are three-dimensional representations, and so are the detailed structural models for a virus.

Most artists like to produce something that is new, personal, and striking.  Scientists can have exactly this same goal for their research work!  Creativity has the same meaning for art and science.  Whether scientific research studies produce spectroscopy curves for a new nanomaterial, images of living genetically-modified cells, or, tables of numbers from astronomy and astrophysics, their output is quite beautiful for the eyes of scientists and also for those of many non-scientists.  Rather than create images from their imagination, as do some artists, scientists make them by skillful use of research experiments, instruments, and data analysis. 

One very large difference between art and science immediately pops into view: science often is displayed in black and white, but art mostly is displayed with colors.  Some scientists purposely add colors to their grayscale images or data plots so as to make them more comprehensible and more interesting.  A very simple, but good, example of the significance of colors is given in the text figure below, shown both in its purely black/white condition (upper panel) and with one added color (lower panel). 

Colored text_edited-1

The information or statement provided in these 2 versions is identical, but the human mind is definitely more attracted to and tickled by the one with color(s)!

Images from science can be seen as abstract art! 

People looking at graphic art often do not know exactly how this was constructed, yet they  either like or dislike the display.  Similarly, viewers seeing images from science often have zero understanding about what they are looking at or what it means; nevertheless, they will feel that one of several displayed images is prettier or more interesting than the others.  I believe that this phenomenon is directly similar to the emotional judgments of viewers (including scientists and other artists!) regarding a piece of abstract art where nothing at all is recognizable.  In both art and science, the emotional reactions of viewers are quite independent of their knowledge. 

As one example of what I mean here, let us look together at an electron microscope image of a mitochondrion (see image shown under the title for this article).  That object is one of the energy-producing organelles found inside all nucleated cells of humans, onions, sharks, jellyfish, butterflies, yeasts, and protozoa.  All mitochondria (plural) have the same basic structure, but often differ in small details from one cell type (e.g., cells in salivary glands that produce and secrete saliva) to another cell type (e.g., islet cells in the pancreas making and secreting insulin). 

Let’s say you have never before seen an image of a mitochondrion and had not even known they existed until now.  Despite this ignorance, when you first looked at the foregoing image, certain feelings popped into your mind (e.g., “how cute!”, “how bizarre!”, or, “does it bite?”).  You were reacting solely to the art within this science image!  You can convert your reaction to the science inside this same image simply by learning more about the parts, structure, and functional activities of mitochondria; then, when looking again at the same image you might feel “how interesting!”, or wonder “what happens in cancer cells?”.  The art and the science are both parts of this same display! 

Beauty in science. 

For Dr.M, beauty in science is everywhere!  If one looks with a special light microscope at a solution of DNA while it is in the process of drying, one will see images that are exquisitely beautiful (see images and videos at:   http://biancaguimaraesportfolio.com/mssng/ ).  Many people will dispute my judgement, because they will say that chemicals or chemistry could not truly be beautuful and any apparent beauty is only some artifact or optical trick.  My answer is that this example has all the elements needed for artistic drama: special characters, different paths of movement, balance or imbalance, discrete stages of development, boundaries, suspense, stylized situations, and the possibility for unanticipated endings; further, the videos show the specimen and colors moving and changing similarly to a troop of dancers gliding about on a stage.  All of this easily can lead to a judgment of being pretty.  Can you see beauty here? 

Good examples of striking beauty in science. 

A wonderful example of what I am trying to describe as “beauty in science” is shown in the collection of images from the Hubble telescope, taken as part of its astronomical research mission (e.g., see:  http://hubblesite.org/gallery/wallpaper/pr2007030c/ ).  Even without knowing exactly what real objects are present in these fantastic images from outer space, most people will perceive contours and boundaries, several repetitive components, some symmetries, connections and groupings, and certain repeated shapes, all of which lead to their conscious or subconscious judgment about the presence of beauty in these images.  There is no true up or down in these images from outer space (e.g., view them at different rotations and you will see that these give quite different impressions to the human mind). 

Another excellent example of artistic beauty in science is found in 3-D representations of the structure of viruses or protein complexes.  These come from research into their structure using electron microscopy or x-ray diffraction; the reconstructions displayed on a computer monitor are color-coded 3-D representations that the scientist can rotate into various orientations.  A large gallery of such images for the 3-D structure of poliovirus is gathered by Google (see gallery at : https://www.google.com/search?q=3D+structure+of+poliovirus&client=opera&hs=01j&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=dJ5XVYD8Lcu4sAW2koGYBg&ved=0CCsQ7Ak&biw=800&bih=502#imgrc=MFsAz8D1Bzj2WM%253A%3BFiyXCzSZPuuKVM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fvirology.wisc.edu%252Fvirusworld%252Fimgency%252Fp1mPOLIO12.jpeg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fictvdb.bio-mirror.cn%252FICTVdB%252F00. ).  All these images are scientifically meaningful representations of Nature’s sculpting, but also are esthetically very pretty.  Do you see beauty in any of them?  Note that it is not necessary to understand anything at all about science in order to perceive beauty in many displays at this gallery! 

Concluding remarks. 

Science and art have a number of common aspects, including beauty, simplicity vs. complexity, mood, and tension.  On the one hand, an artist creates a canvas or sculpts a figure; on the other hand, a research scientist collects experimental data and derives conclusions from their analysis.  Both artists and scientists feature creativity, mental vision, hard work, experience, and personal talent.  The outputs from both art and science can be pretty, stimulating, and meaningful, or, can be ugly, boring, and meaningless; each individual viewer must make this judgment. 

Some scientists can be almost as creative as are artists.  Some artists are as concerned about very small details as much as are scientists.  Both workers produce outputs that stimulate the senses of onlookers.  Both scientists and artists are essential for human society, and both types of authors should be more widely appreciated by everyone for their creative talents and expressive output. 



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