Science and beauty
In my last blog I asked people about what they remembered of science from high school. The majority of responses were about the Bunsen burner but others featured apparatus in general, gas taps, eye and heart dissections, hydrogen pops and the smell of the laboratory. One person said burning magnesium ribbon and then shouted out “Wow” as she remembered it – a response not unlike seeing something beautiful.
This made me think – should we not try and think about science as being beautiful? Perhaps if we did, we may appreciate the world around us more and also the way scientists work in order to make discoveries and create technologies on which most of our lives depend.
If we left school with more ‘magnesium ribbon moments’ perhaps we may associate science and beauty more closely. But what is beauty?
If you look through dictionaries and books on philosophy there are many definitions and ideas to choose from but in the end you may decide to synthesize your own. For my purpose of linking science and beauty to help rekindle people’s interest in science I have settled for an idea that – something beautiful – excites the senses in such a way (for example by the shape and colour of an object or the stages in a process such as a lighting strike or a carefully designed experiment) that it brings pleasure which may be expressed in awe and wonder and an understanding of how everything in our world is linked together in some way.
So how is a magnesium ribbon burning, beautiful, according to my idea?
The stages in the process I think bring pleasure. First the grey ribbon is put in the Bunsen flame and for a moment nothing happens then the ribbon bursts into flame, secondly the flame becomes a brilliant white and strongly illuminates everything around it. If the words of the science teacher are remembered, further pleasure may be gained by the thought of magnesium atoms in the ribbon joining with oxygen atoms in the air and in this process such a large amount of energy is released as light.
Once school is left behind, science may recede into the memory for most people and is only jolted into the consciousness when someone like me asks about it.
However you may find that the idea of beauty in science is closer to your thoughts than you think.
Here is a common occurrence in city parks that almost everyone will have noticed.
We are attracted to the beauty of the scene by the colours and shapes we see but if we stir further memories of school science we may appreciate the processes taking place. Here are some memories that may return as you look at the picture –
the plant has grown so successfully using photosynthesis to generate the food it needs that it has now produced flowers to allow it to reproduce.
The flowers produce pollen for use in this process but the pollen must be transferred to other flowers for reproduction to take place.
These flowers have opted for using insects to transfer their pollen so they attract them with bright colours, scents and the promise of flying fuel – nectar.
The insect visits the flower, uncoils its hosepipe –like mouth into the flower and sucks up nectar while at the same time the hairs on its body pick up pollen to take away.
Remembering our school science can enhance the beauty of a scene such as this, I think. To look at the science and beauty idea in more detail I strongly recommend this link which explains the it much better than I can:
You may like to follow up this video by considering science and beauty at…
…then look around you for further examples or look at the pictures in our Natural History Gallery at
So why should we consider that science can be beautiful. First, I think it is a worthwhile activity for any adult but secondly it can be particularly useful to parents and grandparents as they help the younger members of the family learn about science both at school and in homework activities.
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