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Write every day no exceptions – Beauty in the helix June 13, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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A long time ago, I was sitting on the internet (as I have since I was about what, twelve?) and I discovered a post on a messageboard I enjoyed frequenting. The post went something like this, only with far worse grammar:

“So I have a horrible problem. I look out of my window every day and I see the green grass and blue sky and the sun, and all I can think about is how the only reason the grass is green because of the chloryphyll in it. The only reason the sky is blue is because of the way air refracts light, and the only reason the sun buns at all is because of hydrogen molecules smashing together. I can’t see any beauty in the world anymore. This is why science classes and education are wrong – they destroy all the beauty in the world by explaining it!”

I remember becoming irrationally angry at this guy. As pretentious, self-righeous high school students who hang out on the internet are wont to do, I typed out an angry, incoherent response as to why he was wrong and started a massive flame war with the vast majority of people at this board vehemently disagreeing with me and insisting that Science Is Bad, just like Holywood has taught them. Isn’t the only thing science ever does is clone vicious dinosaurs that eat tourists or build supercomputers that throw us out of airlocks and into really weird surrealist montages or enslave us into the most inefficient power source ever (they should have stuck with the parallel processing idea).

I’m going to try to respond a bit more coherently here. Or, rather, I’ll try, but honestly, Richard Feynman said it better than I did, even if he had a bad habit of belitteling artists.

See, what got me onto this little rant is that I’ve been reading Feynman lately, specifically the book Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It’s a collection of anecdotes and memoirs by the man, who I hadn’t even known about until recently (I know that this is a terrible thing, but forgive me, I’m still learning). Feynman muses about science and art a few times, and he has a specific essay where he writes ‘I have a friend who’s an artist…’ where his artist friend says basically the same thing that Disgruntled Internet Guy says above. If I recall (I don’t have internet access or the book in question with me at the moment of writing), it’s something like “I’m an artist. I can see the beauty in this flower. But you’re a scientist, so all you can see are a bunch of molecules. You don’t see the beauty.”

There’s a few things that make me angrier than statements like that, but it’s still something that makes me pretty damn angry! How can you say that knowing what a flower is made of somehow makes it less beautiful?

To give an example, is Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ a less spectacular picture for knowing how he made it by intricately cutting dozens of blocks of wood, covering them with ink, aligning them carefully and then pressing them to paper, making certain that each block was justified perfectly to layer up the image of a great tsunami and a few beleaguered fisherman near Mount Fujii? Is it less beautiful for knowing that he made several copies, and that he often worked for the money like many Ukio-e artists did? Is it less beautiful for knowing that it’s actually one of thirty-six images in a series about Mount Fujii?

No, of course not! In fact, I’d argue that you can appreciate that iconic image more once you know the story behind it. You can appreciate the hours and hours of hard work that Hokusai must have put into making that image, the difficulty of carving out the wood blocks. This wasn’t photoshopped, gentlemen. You can look beyond the dozens of pop culture reproductions and homage images and see the truth behind the image. And, if you know about the other Thirty-Six views, maybe your world will be expanded and filled with more beauty as you go and look for these other less well-known but equally fine prints of Japan’s most famous mountain.

In the same way, it’s completely idiotic to assume that because you know how a flower functions that it’s somehow less beautiful. It’s a flower no matter what you know about it (as the Bard said, ‘a rose by any other name…”). Once you know how it functions though, a whole world of other beauties appears to you. Think about how that flower evolved – billions of years ago a soup of carbon chains got complex enough to make other carbon chains, and those carbon chains did weird things like get cell walls and DNA and make more of them until you got more and more complex things, until some of them by chance started using this funky molecule that let them use sunlight as a power source, and those guys had a better chance of surviving than some of the other ones that were relying on other sources of energy, and then they kept getting more complex until they moved onto land and one of them by chance started doing this funny thing with DNA combining and releasing the results in tiny packets and then another one somehow evolved so that bugs would do the DNA combining for it and the ones that were better at getting bugs made more copies of themselves and it just so happened that when a bunch of monkeys saw the results of this they went “Wow! That’s really cool looking!”

What the hell are the odds of that? Think about it! Millions of years of evolution had to happen for grass to be green, for flowers to be pretty. And that’s not even getting into the complex and intricate beauty of the cells that make them up, the molecules that compose those cells. There is an intrinsic beauty to what we can discover through science – look at any photograph taken by the Hubble or by our robot probes. If you aren’t moved by the sight of the Pillars of Creation you just aren’t human.

… man, I had somewhere I was going, but it’s now much too late, and I must sleep. More on other topics tomorrow.



1. Patrick - June 13, 2010

I love that book by Feynman. Also, I bet that slob on the Internet would be insulted by being referred to as an anti-intellectual, but that’s exactly what it is…a chronically shallow thinker whose ambition is to infect others with his broken ideas.

How arrogant one must be to benefit from the fruits of science every single hour of one’s existence, yet rail against it so!

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