Saturday, September 4, 2010

Science & Beauty

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time.
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Leaves of Grass (1900)
Walt Whitman

Renown science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay (Science and Beauty) in response to Whitman's well-known poem.  It was first published as an article in 1979 but later appeared in The Roving Mind, a collection of essays published in 1983.

Asimov (1920-1992) was a prolific writer (to say the least) having written or edited over 500 works spanning every major area of the Dewey decimal system except philosophy.  Asimov was one of the reasons I gravitated toward science (or maybe my interest in science made me gravitate toward Asimov).  His clear, direct prose appealed to me as a young teenager and I devoured his books on science (Asimov on Astronomy, Asimov on Physics, Asimov on Chemistry, etc., etc.).

Asimov always put a bit of himself in his books, after a few you felt that you knew him personally.  Supposedly a great guy in person as well.

You can read Asimov's short essay here.  It starts:
I imagine that many people reading those lines tell themselves, exultantly, "How true! Science just sucks all the beauty out of everything, reducing it all to numbers and tables and measurements! Why bother learning all that junk when I can just go out and look at the stars?"
He goes on to write:

That is a very convenient point of view since it makes it not only unnecessary, but downright aesthetically wrong, to try to follow all that hard stuff in science. Instead, you can just take a look at the night sky, get a quick beauty fix, and go off to a nightclub.

But what I see - those quiet, twinkling points of light - is not all the beauty there is. Should I stare lovingly at a single leaf and willingly remain ignorant of the forest? Should I be satisfied to watch the sun glinting off a single pebble and scorn any knowledge of a beach?

For the rest of the essay, Asimov discusses what astronomers have learned about stars and planets (some of those points of light aren't stars at all).  Cloud-shrouded worlds with toxic atmospheres, giant suns thousands of times brighter than our own, that virtually all the objects we see are part of a giant pinwheel galaxy spinning in space.  He concludes:

And all of this vision- far beyond the scale of human imaginings -was made possible by the works of hundreds of "learn'd" astronomers ...  Nor can we know or imagine now the limitless beauty yet to be revealed in the future - by science.

I love this because it's exactly how I feel about science.  While I love being out and communing with nature, being out on a summer evening and staring at the stars (I did that last night out in the woods), there's far more to see in your mind's eye with some scientific knowledge.

That bright star in the east is Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, a world with liquid hydrogen oceans under its crushing gaseous atmosphere.  Those four stars form the great square of Pegasus and that blurry spot to the left is the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest object you can see with the naked eye over 2,000,000 light years away and composed of hundreds of billions of stars.  That orange-colored star in the west is Arcturus, far enough away that to light you see tonight left the star back in 1973, and was emitted from a star that has used up all its hydrogen fuel and is now in old age as a helium burning orange-red giant.

People think science is dry and uninteresting.  That it has a reductionist worldview that takes the mystery and awe out of the world.  Maybe that's how it's often taught in basic science classes, and learning science can be difficult, but science is anything but dry and uninteresting.  It's freakin' awesome!


  1. Hey, Steve! This is cool. As a graduate of an English department, I can recall a number of classes in which professors would direct us to this piece by Whitman and ask us "what it means!?" And of course, a few hands would raise and students would voice their dismay for hard science, snobbishly decrying the scientist's utter lack of aesthetic appreciation and abundance of ugly numbers and charts. I sat, half expecting the professor to probe deeper, to ask us if we thought Whitman was wrong... if perhaps Whitman truly failed to realize that science actually breeds beauty, that without it there'd be much less beauty in the world. The professor rarely did - we'd normally just move on.

    Until, that is, I began taking the Environmental literature classes and immersing myself in the field of environmental writing and criticism. There is where I found science and literature inextricably linked. And there is where I decided that Whitman's poem, which always appealed to me for its subject matter, was rubbish!

    Your example is a good one. It's one thing to look at the night sky and marvel at its beauty. But it's another thing entirely to know what you're looking at, to know the unfathomable distances that what you see has traveled. Praise the learn'd astronomers!

  2. Quite honestly, I think more people in science are familiar with literature than people in literature are familiar with science (I know you're one of the few exceptions Eric!).