Seems it’s time to talk about science and beauty again. You see, several people tweeted this XKCD:
And then, on the same day, Eric MacDonald has this post up:
This morning, in the The Independent, Michael McCarthy has an article entitled “Mere Science cannot account for beauty.” And while it may be true that mere science cannot account for beauty — there may be no strictly scientific account in terms of chemistry or physics of why we respond as we do to things that we find beautiful — I wonder why he felt the need to say it. Science has, in fact, revealed many beautiful things. Some of the pictures that Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers have put up from time to time on their blogs — close-up pictures of insects, the amazing variety of squids and octopuses, eagles’ nests, and eaglets — or the pictures of stars and galaxies and supernovae that Carl Sagan included in his books — show that scientists, far from negating beauty or awe at the wonder of nature, celebrate and revel in such things. The deeper they probe, the more they study and come to know, the more wonderful and beautiful nature seems.
I used to be one of those woo-woo idjits swanning around mourning the fact that science takes the mystery out of things. I also used to be one of those woo-woo idjits swanning around perplexed by the fact that an ostensibly benevolent universal consciousness took such delight in creating really ugly shit. Inordinate fondness for beetles is only the tip of it. Tended to ignore the ugly stuff, then, in favor of pretty things. Oh, and I really wanted to believe in magic and faeries.
There had, I told myself, to be something more to this universe than just plain boring ol’ matter. And why were those meanie scientists so intent on taking the mystery and magic out of life? Sure, some of what they did was made of awesome, but did they have to be such bastards about it? Did they have to make it impossible for me to believe in faeries?
For a while, I had this weird split-personality. One side of myself read and reveled in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World while the other gobbled up books on Celtic magic. I thought the world wouldn’t be quite so pretty without the possibility of mysteries beyond science’s ken. I still liked watching science spank assorted silly people, like UFO conspiracists and fundies, but hands off my faeries, damn it.
Then, somewhere along the line, I grew up.
And I found out something.
Science solves mysteries, yeah, but mysteries aren’t half as much fun unsolved as they are when they’re being solved. That thrilling sense of mystery was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the numinous sensation of gazing upon a mystery solved. What I mean by that is, having things explained didn’t lessen them a bit. I mean, let’s go back to Eric’s post, where he demonstrates Mr. McCarthy wanking about butterflies:
With science, McCarthy tells us, he can explain that
it was an insect; that it belonged to the butterfly family Pieridae, the whites; that it had overwintered as an adult, one of only four British butterfly species to do so (the others pass the winter variously as eggs, or caterpillars, or pupae); that in its caterpillar stage it had fed on the plants buckthorn or alder buckthorn; and that it had hibernated disguised as a leaf, probably in an ivy clump, until the first warm day in March woke it up.But that, he says, just “doesn’t remotely get it.”
Dude, McCarthy, you don’t remotely get it. What has science told us about that butterfly? Without science, we have a wee pretty little insect fluttering around, yes, okay, “like a piece of sunlight that had been loosed from the sun’s rays and was free to wander, announcing the spring.” I get that, it’s very nice. You can throw a bit of animism in there if you like, and talk about butterfly spirits if you’re feeling particularly frisky. Whatever melts your butter (or flutters your butterfly). But you, O wanker who recites some science facts whilst totally missing the point, aren’t seeing the real majesty here: science tells us that we and that butterfly are related.
That’s right. Not closely related, mind. The butterfly might not get invited were we to throw a family reunion, but trace the family tree back enough, and you’ll see that little brimstone butterfly and ourselves share a common ancestor. We’re kin. That may not be mysterious, but that leaves my jaw hanging, that does. That gets me all giddy inside. And we never would have known that if it wasn’t for boring ol’ science out there solving mysteries and banishing ghosts, gods, and all sorts of nature spirits.
Here’s another thing you might see, looking at that little butterfly: it’s made of star-stuff. Literally. All of the atoms in it got cooked up in stars or supernovae at some point in the universe’s history. It’s not just that we need sunlight to survive: we needed gigantic exploding stars to make this planet possible in the first place.
If the two above facts do not induce a sense of awe and wonder in you, then you are bloody well hopeless.
Mysteries are nice, yeah, but they’re too easily ignored when they can’t be solved. What really gets the awe and wonder going, what leaves me stumbling round in slack-jawed amazement, occasionally bursting into gales of giddy laughter, is the sheer magnitude of what science has revealed about the workings of the world. It makes everything huge. Back when I thought goddidit, I could just shrug stuff off. ‘Course it’s pretty, God made it that way, or the faeries or the spirits or whoever. But you can’t shrug off the beauty of the natural world so easily. Not when it comes down to the intricate interplay of physics and chemistry and geology and biology, some or all of them combining in any one moment to unconsciously create something of extraordinary beauty. It’s like a really good magician’s trick, the kind where seeing how it was done only makes you appreciate the illusion more.
Oh, and did I mention how science makes ugly things lovely? Even slime molds that look like dog barf.
You woo-woo lot can go into agonies of ecstasy over the first butterfly in spring. I shall sing odes to the slime mold, and the mud flat that could tell me a once and future story about its birth in the heart of a star, its wander through space until it became part of a primordial planet, its journey through the Hadean earth and its incarnations as, perhaps, a bit of magma or a solid bit of shell before erosion weathered it away to become what it is now, a home for the oysters, on its way to an eventual date with lithification once more, cycling ever onward.