Andre at Biocurious responds to something PZ Myers said at a talk, with this legit criticism of the “science is beautiful” theme:
How far down the road of “science shares more with art than engineering” do you want to go? Our society supports the arts because they provide beauty and insight and enrich our lives. We support science because it is inspiring and let’s us reach beyond ourselves to see and understand things that didn’t seem possible and because it provides tangible advances that improve the quality of our lives. Those benefits are worth a lot to people. The National Endowment for the Arts has a budget of around $150 million. The National Science Foundation has a budget of around $6000 million.
Fair enough: if science made no tangible contributions to the social good, it wouldn’t deserve our tax dollars. But Andre concludes his post, “I wouldn’t have the chance to do science for the sake of beauty if it wasn’t also important and scientists and press release writers shouldn’t be afraid of saying that.” Which implies that the “beautiful” aspects of science don’t contribute significantly to science’s “importance.” This seems to be an excessively utilitarian position.
As I see it, nature is beautiful, and the equations and models we create to extend our understanding of nature are also beautiful. The structure of a virus is both beautifully elegant, and useful to researchers designing vaccines and antiviral drugs. Science doesn’t have solely utilitarian benefits: it can inspire and offer beauty and insight, too.
You may well argue that vaccine development is more important (and more worthy of funding) than viral capsid aesthetics. Certainly this is the case from the perspective of sick children, clinicians, and likely society as a whole. But beauty also has social benefits, beyond simply enriching our lives: it can unify us as societies and as a species. EO Wilson, for example, is leveraging our innate biophilia to persuade disparate religious and political groups to unite in the cause of conservation. We may disagree on who made the world and why, but it’s hard to disagree that it is beautiful. This universality is probably why writers and scientists are often so enthusiastic about incorporating beauty into accounts of research – it’s a common frame of reference.
Science – biology in particular – has extended our ability to witness nature’s beauty beyond all measure (developmental biology, cellular biology, and genetics are great examples). I think that’s something that even scientists often forget. And I think it’s kind of weird yet neat to see someone complaining for once that the connection between science and art is too reflexive and easy!