Pharyngula

Beauty

On a warm and lazy holiday afternoon, determined to avoid any exertion and relax in my easy chair, I was contemplating something easy on the brain: beauty. I have no idea what makes something beautiful, but I could at least approach the subject empirically and catalog those things and experiences the I have found beautiful…so I put together a list. It’s nothing definitive, it’s merely personal, a set of memories of moments where I have been awestruck with beauty.

  1. The zebrafish embryo. These tiny little embryos encapsulate everything that’s lovely about development and biology. They are transparent* animals wrapped in a transparent shell, and you can pop them straight from their mother’s oviduct onto the stage of a microscope and see everything. There’s cytoplasm streaming through strands of yolk to establish a cellular domain; there are nuclei cycling through mitosis, breaking down and reappearing as the cell divides; there are cells creeping through an intricate slow-motion dance to build new tissues; there’s a neuron reaching out with its growth cone, laying down the first nerves; there’s a blood cell tumbling through the epithelia of partially formed blood vessels; there’s a single striated muscle fiber, twitching delicately. The egg is only a millimeter across, but there’s a whole complex world in there. And it changes so fast! It is a spectacular affirmation of the power of natural processes to watch a single cell divide and divide and divide, and then knit itself into a swimming and eating machine, all in the space of a day.
  2. An alpine lake in the Oregon Cascades. We hiked up a mountain trail on a hot June day, carrying a canoe, up and over a rocky rim into a natural bowl with a large lake at its center. We were hot and sweaty when we launched the canoe, but the lake was frigid—it was like sliding out onto a sheet of ice, it was so cool and pleasant. We drifted out to the middle, and stopped paddling; it was a windless day, and the ripples faded away, and we looked down. This lake was deep and so astonishingly clear, you could look down to the bottom 50 or 60 feet below as if our canoe were hovering in the air, with only the thinnest boundary between us and the tangle of logs and rocks below. I seriously felt a moment of vertigo, there in our flying canoe. I reached down and broke the interface with my hand, and felt intense, stinging cold, then numbness…I was suspended in a warm and airy, tree-lined world above, with part in a crystalline world of dead cold and empty, lifeless loveliness.
  3. Me. I already wrote all about my inner beauty; read that article for an explanation.
  4. Crossing the Columbia Bar. Everything was gray: gray skies and a gray sea, and the wind was blowing strongly. It was one of those marginal days for fishing, when the weather could go bad at any time and the water was going to be rough. The charter boat captains decided to go for it anyway, although they’d be spending the whole day fretting over their radios and standing ready to skitter for harbor at the first word of warning. Crossing the bar of the Columbia River was always a bit choppy, but that day it was particularly tough. Twenty and thirty foot swells heaved us up and down; one moment we look straight up and see one of our companion boats hanging above us, the next it would be plummeting down and we’d by rising upwards, and we’d timorously look over the side to see it deep in a trough below us. We were like nothing to the sea. The big boats and the weight of all the people in them were miniscule compared to the masses of water around us, and our passage had no effect on the rhythmic surges of titanic volumes of the Pacific Ocean. There are no human machines that can compare to the power and majesty of the indifferent consequences of the combination of wind and water.
  5. Pregnancy and birth.How do women bear it? I’m male and can only be a witness, not a real participant, and it’s overwhelming from even my limited perspective. Seeing a belly grow taut and full, seeing physiology rearranged in such a focused way, and watching a new organism grow is awesome enough…but the violent (it can’t be described any other way—there’s blood and strain and action and screaming) culmination is also beautiful in its intense ferocity. I admire and respect that effort, but I’m too cowardly to envy it.
  6. Thunderstorms over the Great Salt Lake. From a vantage point on the hills to the west of the city, you can watch the storms roll in towards you over the lake. These are fierce desert storms where the lightning is a near continuous barrage, and the rain pours out of thick dark clouds in black corrugated sheets, and they move fast. The storm roars towards you, flashing and booming, and of course you run for shelter before it arrives. Cowering in a basement is acceptable behavior. Afterwards (it usually doesn’t last long), you can drive out to the desert and find vast stretches of earth glazed with thin sheets of water, made mirror-like and impassable, and watch as the desert sucks them down. They’re gone in an afternoon.
  7. The valley of the Hoh, in the rain. There are many kinds of rain, and you can experience them all at once in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. We were walking up a thin trail of red earth, paralleling the tea-colored stream of the Hoh, and it was raining, as it usually was. We were surrounded by the moss-covered cedars and firs and spruce of the forest, though, which arched overhead so densely that we never really saw the sky. Sometimes the rain would come down in a damp haze; at other times little droplets pattering down; sometimes those fat drops that splat hard against my hat and poncho and make themselves physically felt through all the raingear; and sometimes when the wind stirred the boughs just right they’d release their burden of water all at once, and there’d be a deluge to leave me gasping. Through it all was the hushed moan of the wind through the deep forest, the water rilling through the stream, the constant splash and spatter of the falling rain, the damp musty cedar smell of the rain forest. It was good.
  8. Brains.The first time I sawed through a cranium and peeled the bone back, or tore through the thin membrane shrouding a chain of ganglia, or reflected a layer of muscle to expose a chain of nerves, I was unimpressed. Hearts throb and intestines writhe and muscles twitch, but brains just lie there gelid and pale pink, with all the consistency of a firm pudding. Boring! The beauty lies in hidden complexity. Lower an electrode through it, and the audio monitors hum and squeal and click as they pick up all the electrical activity crackling through it, unseen. Take a slice, stain it, put it on the microscope, and everywhere there are delicate branching fibers a tenth of a micron in diameter, reaching out and connecting cells in a web of contacts. Brains have the beauty of intricacy, an extravagantly baroque filigree of connections…all built by genes and proteins and lipids and cellular interactions.
  9. The west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. All of it. I want to die there on a rocky beach, with sea stacks towering on the horizon and anemones tickling my toes. Drape me with kelp for a caul and push me off with the tide—I’ll feed the crabs and the fish. It’s raw and wild and often hostile, but it also preserves the diversity of marine and shore life, and there is a small glimpse of the richness of a world that isn’t overwhelmed by a monoculture of a single species.
  10. My wife, undressed. You’ll get no description: that’s for my eyes only. But I will say that human eyes and human minds respond best to the human form, and my personal bias is that the female human form is the most splendid representative of the species. When that form is coupled to deep emotional resonance, too, well, nothing can be more lovely. It’s also a major biological miracle.

I started this little exercise by just trying to think of the first things to come to mind when considering the idea of beauty, and I guess after the fact that I can see a few themes emerged. There’s an awful lot of water up there. That’s always been an attraction to me, but honestly, if I’d expanded my list to a hundred entries many more dry places would have come up. There are places in the Palouse and along wild stretches of the southwestern badlands and in some of the other rocky wastelands of the west that come to mind: splitting 500 million year old shales near Delta, Utah and seeing vestiges of a lost world in my hand was also a beautiful moment.

Another bias favors the beauty of the non-human world. I don’t think anything in the Louvre is quite so beautiful as a gnarly tree on a hilltop, I’m afraid. The fact that we humans keep trying to match the spectacular splendor of the natural world is to be admired, but no hand has made anything as lovely as what evolution has wrought.

OK, somebody else’s turn. What are the most beautiful things you can think of?

*I’m often asked, “if they’re so transparent, how can you see anything?” The answer is complicated. We use Nomarski phase contrast optics. When light passes through a transparent object, its intensity and wavelength are unaffected; however, the phase (and polarity, too, but that’s a different issue) of the light may be shifted. This does our eyes no good, since we’re unable to see phase changes—however, a phase contrast microscope merges the phase-shifted image with an unshifted reference, generating patterns of constructive and destructive interference and variations in intensity that we can see. So, we can focus freely through the specimen, and the microscope optics generates contrast in the focal plane only.
Phase contrast optics are also beautiful.
So are the mathematics of light.

(Crossposted to The American Street)

Comments

  1. #1 woofsterNY
    May 28, 2006

    A distant summer rainstorm. A red fox. Sunset in the desert. The girl who makes burritos at Moe’s in Clifton Park, N.Y. Thoroughbred race horses. The smiles of friends. Snowflakes drifting down at midnight in the luminous cone of a streetlight. Little kids laughing during play. Golden retriever puppies.

  2. #2 JST
    May 28, 2006

    Cold white cream stirred slowly into hot brown coffee.

    Trees.

    Ants.

  3. #3 Mike
    May 28, 2006

    What’s beautiful? How about evolution? Or the way developmental biology is so wonderfully fleshing it out?

  4. #4 mooli
    May 28, 2006

    Your wife, undressed 😀

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    May 28, 2006

    OK, here’s the harder question. Why should those things be “beautiful”?

    For viewing your wife (and other feminine beauty), I can see the evolutionary advantage. But what benefit do we get from seeing thunderstorms as beautiful, or a roaring river, etc.?

    For some of the beauty of nature, I can even see the ability to recognize an environment that is conducive to being able to raise lots of young, but thunderstorms?

  6. #6 Brontodon
    May 28, 2006

    I can’t decide which is more beautiful: a space shuttle lifting off in a blaze of fire and billowing cloud, or one gliding in gracefully for a landing.

  7. #7 MtMan900
    May 28, 2006

    Acuah

    Your problem is that you’re psychoanalizing PZ strictly from an evolutionary perspective. While that is something to keep in mind, it isn’t the only thing.

    Thunderstorms are beautiful not because they offer us any evolutionary advantage by admiring them, but because of the power and grace they bring at the same time with a dash of unimaginable chaos inside. PZ, being who he is, is probably very impressed with the products of chaotic happenstance (see: the gnarled tree). As it just so happens, the overwhelmed feeling brought on by witnessing such elegant and chaotic events makes the religious more affirmed in their beliefs in a higher power, while makes us atheists probably reel in amazement at the incredible chances that such a thing could have occured.

  8. #8 Brontodon
    May 28, 2006

    Is there any sound more beautiful than the Blue Danube waltz?

  9. #9 MtMan900
    May 28, 2006

    Oh, and I totally forgot.

    What is beautiful: If I hadn’t implied it enough, any mix of breathtaking elegance and sheer power. For this reason I cannot help but love Star Wars, for the lightsaber is the epitome of that.

    Furthermore, why isn’t your wife in all forms of dress #1 on the list?!? I hope your wife doesn’t see that (or your daughter, for that matter,ha!)

  10. #10 Zeno
    May 28, 2006

    The night sky above the high desert in New Mexico during the summer. The afternoon thundershowers scrub the dust out of the air and during the wee hours of a moonless night the stars are diamond-hard points of light — and there are so many of them! I once pulled off to the shoulder of the road between Santa Fe and New Mexico at one in the morning so that I could climb out of the car and just stare up into space. Enthralling.

  11. #11 BrianT
    May 28, 2006

    I think Ahcuah has posed a good question: “Why should those things be “beautiful”? But also, why should so many things that are considered beautiful, be almost universally considered beautiful (lakes, rivers, seacoasts, sunsets, flowers, crystals, etc., etc.)? Are these learned responses or instinctive responses? If they’re learned responses, then why do so many things I’ve seen alone and for the first time strike me as beautiful? If they’re instictive responses, then why for instance is a sunset beautiful? That should signal nightfall and being more vulnerable to predation. Or how about something as useless to my survival as a microscopic image of a diatom?

    As an atheist, I’m certainly not suggesting anything supernatural here. Maybe it has to do with feeling a familiarity or kinship between beautiful things and the organization of our own bodies and brains.

  12. #12 justawriter
    May 28, 2006

    I remember driving north on ND Highway 1 home from college and there was a full moon behind me that was bright enough to drive with lights off, there was a huge thunderhead to the northwest that was pulsing orange with internal lightning while in the northeast an aurora rippled and danced.

    Another time an aurora seemed to be bursting outward from a point directly above me forming a chrysthanthemum patter above me.

    Singing Bach and suddenly feeling an almost physical “click” as 70 voices suddenly blend in perfect harmony.

  13. #13 OGeorge
    May 28, 2006

    The perception of beauty is a function of how comfortable and well-fed you are. Cold and hungry seldom find beauty anywhere. Be happy we live in a time and place where beauty comes so easily to our eyes and brains.

  14. #14 David Harmon
    May 28, 2006

    Asking why our world is beautiful to us is like that metaphorical puddle asking why it’s basin is so perfectly shaped to it.

    This is our world, and we carry its imprint in every fiber of our beings. Naturally, we like the place….

  15. #15 woofsterNY
    May 28, 2006

    Ahem.

    SOME of us are missing the point of this post.

    The question was:

    “What are the most beautiful things you can think of?”

    And thunderstorms are probably beautiful because, as OGeorge suggested, we can look out at their awesome destructive power from a place of warmth and safety.

  16. #16 MtMan900
    May 28, 2006

    Warmth and safety aren’t everything. Yes, they are prerequisites for being able to appreciate beauty, but if I were 100% warm and safe looking at drunk sorority sisters vomiting on College Ave, it wouldn’t be anymore beautiful.

    Like I said before, I feel that there are basically three things: awe towards the destruction, amazement versus the beauty and elegance, and dumbstruck by the chance and chaos of the entire system.

    While being safe and warm are prerequisites, so are eyeballs. If I were to have said “One needs eyeballs to obeserve beauty” no one would have paid it any attention.

  17. #17 sdanielmorgan
    May 28, 2006

    I think an even better question than “why are those things beautiful?” is “what is the cascade of thoughts and impulses that forms the concept ‘beauty’ in our minds?”

    Beauty and awe are kissing cousins. Fear and awe and reverence can be translated one to another quite easily in the face of mute, blind, raw, and great forces of nature.

    I looked at a male peacock this weekend up close and considered the almost harsh and metallic blue color of his plumage. We aren’t the only ones that find things beautiful, remember. The females he attracts find them beautiful too.

  18. #18 MtMan900
    May 28, 2006

    Ooops. Read “versus” as “due to”. I don’t know WHAT I was thinking when writing that.

    Thinking about it a little further, I’d generalize it all by saying that there were two things that probably went into what makes things beautiful: evolutionary psychology and what we find to be admirable attributes, even if they don’t add (or even subtract) from the liklihood of producing viable offspring.

    When you come to an object which is admired by everyone as beautiful, you can probably shift it towards the former of the two. Why do so many males enjoy two females making out? On the other hand, why would a computer programmer appreciate an efficient program comprised of a million lines, or a poet find a poem so appealing? Nothing inherently in the characters lead to a greater chance of survival. Instead, the programming or word combination are representative of work which the observer holds in high regard. To PZ, and many of the other scientists who visit this forum, the work produced by unfathomable numbers of “random” reactions by unknowable numbers of participants bring about the eye catching splendor of cloud formations or even PZ’s own inner workings.

  19. #19 The Amazing Kim
    May 28, 2006

    The first time I sawed through a cranium and peeled the bone back, or tore through the thin membrane shrouding a chain of ganglia

    Seriously, I’m eating breakfast here…

    A well-behaved dog, the better lectures of Foucault, raven feathers taken from the wing, a whole bunch of supernovae remnants, the emotional high from a 5k run.

  20. #20 woofsterNY
    May 28, 2006

    All of you carefully analyzing the topic, your co-bloggers are well aware of your Heads. Now, for a moment, let us into your Hearts.

    All it takes is this:

    A. Try to think of one or more things you find beautiful.

    B. Post it here.

  21. #21 SkookumPlanet
    May 28, 2006

    I’ve been to the Hoh, the Oly west coast beaches, and PZ’s lake’s twin in the Cascades outside Seattle. Quite beautiful. They instantly send me to a landscape which, with all their elements plus ocean, is my definition of beauty.

    Kachemak Bay, Alaska, where I lived 30 years ago, is still the most beautiful and spectacular landscape I’ve ever seen — mountains, rainforest, islands, fjords, glaciers, and 10,000-feet-high, active volcanoes on the shores of ocean teeming with life, from copeopods to belugas, furred, feathered, and finned — a touchstone for landscape beauty.

    It’s a compact visual and ecological tableau of Southeast Alaska’s rainforest-covered archipelago, the interior’s vast taiga, and Alaska’s great riparian valleys. Not mere skin-deep beauty, back then Kachemak Bay was the most biologically productive body of seawater ever measured! Cook Inlet indenting the southwest corner of the Kenai Peninsula, it’s the shape and size as San Francisco Bay, where I now live.

    Take the highway 150 miles south from Anchorage until it ends. That’s Homer, which sits on the bay’s northern shore at the base of the second longest spit on Earth. Homer is optimized as a landscape theater. Behind town, the 1,000-feet high bluff is the mezzanine; at sea level, Homer is orchestra seats; and spanning half the bay’s mouth, the spit is seating in the orchestra. This seating chart is at the center of a 75-mile-wide, 270-degree landscape amphitheater.

    Separating the bay from and gradually sinking into the Pacific, the Kenai Mountains are it’s southern shore. That coast is crenellated by coves, lagoons, complex bay systems, rocky headlands, glacial flats, more spits, gravel and black sand beaches, lakes and islands, all covered, enfolded, and enclosed by dense hemlock-spruce rainforest. From the right spots, five glaciers, their parent Harding Icefield, and five active volcanoes are visible.

    One of many grace notes of beauty are the drawn-out, high-latitude sunsets across 35 miles of open Inlet water, behind the Alaska Peninsula’s frenzy of mountain ranges with their towering, glacier-topped active volcanoes. Scarlet-tinted steam-vent trails anyone?

    It’s a skookum planet!

  22. #22 Steve
    May 28, 2006

    Let me 2nd or 3rd the Hoh area. We were there a few weeks ago and, as usual, awstruck by the beauty, the green, the ancient trees, the ancient forest floor,…and on and on…

    Our daughter hiked up to the snow line, about 15 miles in, this weekend. Just got back to Forks having missed most of the massive Seattle area rains of the past two days. I’m looking forward to her pics…

  23. #23 Jessica Guilford
    May 29, 2006

    10. raindrops on roses
    9. whiskers on kittens
    8. bright copper kettles
    7. warm woolen mittens
    6. brown paper packages tied up with strings

    Wait. no. That’s the wrong list. Um.

    10. Tornadoes
    9. Vanillin (smell)
    8. Corydoras spp. (popular catfish for home aquaria)
    7. Seth Green, in “Buffy” season 3, and/or Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club
    6. Bell curves
    5. Amanita mushrooms
    4. That “urban camouflage” pattern used for military and pseudomilitary garb, that’s all gray and blue and white
    3. Dieffenbachia spp. (popular houseplants)
    2. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace novel)
    1. The planet Neptune

  24. #24 natural cynic
    May 29, 2006

    Sunset Feb 18, 1970 from the top of Panoramic Way in Berkeley. The sun perfectly splits the Golden Gate Bridge and sets on the Farallons.
    Watching the first and second cleavage furrows in frog eggs at 20x magnification.
    Simultaneous sunset and moonrise from a high Sierra peak.
    Wild and scary thunderstorms.
    The finish line at the end of my first and only marathon.
    The milky way on a very dark night.
    Swimming under Hanakapiai Falls after a hard 4 mile hike on the Na Pali coast of Kauai.

    Now I’m getting too verklempt to go on.

  25. #25 disturbingtheuniverse
    May 29, 2006

    Do you know Humberto Eco’s History of Beauty?

  26. #26 SkookumPlanet
    May 29, 2006

    Now, as to why, there’s some research into certain landscapes that seem to be universally beautiful. Followed by some overdone media bs. It’s been picked up by a few writers, like Steven Pinker. I call it the Instinctive Landscape and I see a vestigial speciation event hidden in it. To my mere layman’s mind it was most likely coming out of, or going into, the australopiths.

    Thunderstorms, roundabout, are part of this Instinctive Landscape, and the example of Australian aborigines is usually offered up. They may set out on a 20-, 30-, or even 40-mile desert journey for water based on their ability to discern dry from rain-bearing cumulus over the horizon. Mistaken weather forecasting can be fatal and we evolved in a desiccating East Africa.

    Also included, if memory serves, are sunsets.

    My analogy is to imagine a house cat’s emotions when in its favorite spot — perched high, looking out and over, snuggly enclosed [camouflaged] on all sides. That’s from feline beginnings as forest ambush predators. My guess is even lions and cheetahs would feel the same.

  27. #27 Susannah
    May 29, 2006

    Sounds: water lapping at the dock
    a mother cat talking to her kittens
    rain on a cabin roof
    rain in deep forest
    seagulls calling
    babies laughing
    loons over the lake

    Smells: salt water, creosote and fishnets
    freshly mowed grass
    Mexican dust after a quick rain
    fresh cement
    sawdust, especially in the rain

    Sights: anything with a mountain in it
    melibe leonina
    storms over open ocean
    murrelets on whitecaps
    a kitten asleep
    green trees at streamside in the Chilcotin desert

  28. #28 bad Jim
    May 29, 2006

    The song of the mockingbird that you can hear, right now, going out your door. It’s kind of a low-down, do-it-yourself kind of beauty, but it’s free, and dependably different year after year.

  29. 10. A screaming baby newly born, wishing desperately to return to the womb; vulnerable and not yet sure if she can trust the hands that hold her.
    9. Flowing prairie grass on the northern plains, buffeted by the winds.
    8. Dawn at Point Reyes Nat’l Seashore, seen through bleary eyes peering out of a tent.
    7. Sunset in Ensenada, Mexico as the fire in the sky is reflected on the ocean.
    6. Clumpy, wet, sticky snow weighing down the branches in December. (By January it is ugly for some reason.)
    5. A clear-voiced soprano soloist singing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
    4. The norhern sky at night, far from light pollution. Best seen at the end of a fishing dock and in the absence of clouds or mosquitoes.
    3. The glassy surface of a secluded lake at Dawn, with a mallard family out for a swim creating tiny wakes that ripple in a perfect line.
    2. Flying into San Francisco at night.
    1. A certain girl whose name I can’t tell you.

  30. #30 Melusine
    May 29, 2006

    woofsterNY said:
    All of you carefully analyzing the topic, your co-bloggers are well aware of your Heads. Now, for a moment, let us into your Hearts.

    All it takes is this:

    A. Try to think of one or more things you find beautiful.

    B. Post it here

    Man oh man, this reminds me of an English class where the professor asked the class to write a paper about “Why I like to read.” It was amazing how many papers were not about the question. 🙂

    a. My screen-saver is alternating pictures of Oahu’s North Shore waves; I never tire of looking at those beautiful arcs & the tremendous power of the Pacific meeting the reefs in these giant curls.
    b. Sting rays (or any rays) swimming.
    c. Flying above layers of clouds, especially when there are large, exotically shaped cumulous clouds–it looks like a whole other world. Also, the beautiful topography below.
    d. Tide pools–so much life happening in them.
    e. Thousands of olive tree leaves shimmering in the sun & wind like silvery minnows in the countryside of Tuscany.
    f. Bubbles floating–iredescent, fragile, reflecting.
    g. Lightning storms over the ocean–better than fireworks.
    h. A tree sapling breaking through pavement.
    i. Children dancing, playing, laughing, being kids.
    j. Sitting in a sculpture garden and listening to the sounds of someone playing a musical instrument from a dorm room above.
    k. A starry, summer night from my youth: meteors above, lightning bugs below, and the competing orchestras of crickets and bullfrogs.

  31. #31 Keith Douglas
    May 29, 2006

    Hm. Once many years ago, while thinking of a dear friend and reading Plato to prepare for an examination, I came to the conclusion that beauty is sort of an attitude we hold about things, a sort of desire that the object of beauty continue. I’ve had trouble making all of it very clear, but one thing seems very obvious to me is that it is as much in the beholder as the beheld. (So the usual saying is as wrong as those who claim it is only out there. So is the Elton John song, but that’s another story.)

    Here are some beautiful “things” in a random order:

    – Jarre’s Equinoxe
    – Turing “On Comptable Numbers …” paper
    – The friend who I mentioned above
    – The passage in Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation concering “stupid about”
    – Science (the activity and what we know because of it)
    – All three versions of “City on the Edge of Forever”
    – The one I call “Socrates in a miniskirt”
    – Some proofs in pure mathematics – e.g. Euclid’s proof of the infinity of primes
    – Beauty (Take that, third man argument!)
    – Aspects of Apple’s software and hardware over the years

  32. #32 xebecs
    May 29, 2006

    Ditto on much mentioned above, plus

    Purely Visceral:

    1. Waterfalls
    2. Redwoods
    3. Classical Architecture (old stuff, not modern mashups)

    Partly Visceral, Mostly Intellectual:

    1. Mandelbrot Sets
    2. The Fibonnaci Sequence
    3. Watching a mathematical concept manifest, e.g. — as someone above said “Bell Curves” — watching balls fall through a set of pegs to form a bell curve distribution at the bottom.
    4. Seeing a computer program I’ve written do what I expected/hoped it would do.

  33. #33 ulg
    May 29, 2006

    Thunderstorms are beautiful not because they offer us any evolutionary advantage by admiring them, but because of the power and grace they bring at the same time with a dash of unimaginable chaos inside.

    Alternative suggestion: Put yourself in the corrugated bare feet of a plains ape. A thunderstorm means:
    (a) The waterholes will fill, and you’ll go thirsty less. (Remember, humans need water more often than most other savanna animals.)
    (b) The plants will grow, some of which are food.
    (c) The antelopes will feed on the grasses and grow – some of these are food too.
    If your ancestors couldn’t see these things as beautiful, natural selection would have fed you to a hyena.

    East Africa, where humans spent a good chunk of their history, gets much of its rain from powerful thunderstorms.

    (Okay, I know there’s no good way test this – and I don’t believe all examples of beauty are adaptive. But thunderstorms == beauty might be adaptive.)

  34. #34 Jake B. Cool
    May 29, 2006

    Say “The Valley of the Hoh” out loud. Heh heh heh.

    Okay, let me agree that it is quite beautiful, as is much of the rest of the peninsula.

    I don’t believe that warmth and safety are utter sine qua nons for perceiving beauty. I recall a moment of worry, hunger and fatigue where I was still struck by the beauty of a moonless night sky at a spot on the Oregon coast.

  35. #35 Bob O'H
    May 29, 2006

    There’s a distinct lack of cephalopods here. Hmmm.

    For me, a large part of J.S. Bach’s canon could be included, but I’ll stick to the start of the Johannes Passion (“Herr, unser Herrscher”). More obscurely, Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis. One of the few pieces of music that can take my breath away.

    I’ll try and regain my nerd status by suggesting an elegant proof, or solution to a problem. For example, Cox’s Proportional Hazards model in survival analysis. It elegantly sidesteps the main problems in survival analysis (censoring and parametric assumptions).

    Hmm, a Gower cover drive? The description of a Gower cover drive on TMS? The look of total confusion on an American’s face to those last two sentences?

    And finally, the “What time is is Eccles” segment (mp3) from the All-Leather Goon Show. The writing is comic perfection.

    Bob
    P.S. natural cynic: I was born on Feb 18th 1970! Not in Berkeley, and some time before your sunset (I think we were on to the 19th by then).

  36. #36 Ebonmuse
    May 29, 2006

    As far as recognizing beauty goes, I tend to doubt that evolution would have directly granted us an ability to find, say, thunderstorms or flowing water or branching tree limbs to be beautiful. Rather, I suspect that our ability to discern beauty is a side effect of a general facility for pattern recognition.

    Things that are too regular, like brick walls, bore us; things that are too chaotic, like TV static, don’t interest us. This is as it should be, because in nature, things that either don’t change at all or change far too rapidly and erratically for us to discern any pattern are unlikely to make any difference in how we react to our environments.

    But things that are in between, things that are complex and chaotic but show a hint of underlying order or regularity or patterning – those are the important things, the ones worth paying attention to, because we just might be able to figure out the pattern and use it to our advantage. It’s no wonder that semi-patterned phenomena delight and tantalize us, because there undoubtedly is important evolutionary advantage in having a brain that’s motivated to try to figure out the rules, to see the numbers in the chaos of the natural world.

    Anyway, just so this post stays on topic, I wrote an essay on Ebon Musings a while back, Finding Beauty in the Mundane, on this very topic…

  37. #37 cathy in seattle
    May 29, 2006

    1. The fierce love for your child’s smile
    2. The smell of a blackberry thicket in August
    3. The idea of the Big Bang
    4. Finding Saturn with the telescope
    5. Mandelbrots
    6. Venus
    7. Brugmansia suaveolens

  38. #38 Carlie
    May 29, 2006

    My most beautiful things (in no particular order):

    A sun-drenched boulder in the middle of a creek at Thousand Hills State Park in Kirksville, Missouri

    Seeing pure, clear water running through blue ice on the Athabasca Glacier

    Innumberable instances of my children: sleeping, laughing, holding hands as they walk home from the park, and more every day

    The first time I dissected a flower under a microscope. It was a purple petunia, and although I expected the pollen to be yellow, it was lavender. It was at that exact moment I knew I wanted to be a botanist.

    Not a sight, but a sound, of one particular voice, soft and low, close to my ear

    Watching a picture appear in the developer, realizing I finally have the perfect exposure and contrast (back in the wet photo lab days)

    The first tulip of spring, every spring

  39. #39 Carlie
    May 29, 2006

    Oh, and I forgot the snow. Not all snow, but huge, silent, lake effect fluffy snow drifting down late at night, when the entire neighborhood is quiet and the snow glistens as it passes by the streetlight (and I’m the only idiot out shoveling at 10 pm).

  40. #40 AAB
    May 30, 2006

    I find the workings of nature beautiful. The fact that from the sub-atomic particles all the way up to how chemicals behave all the way to cells, living organisms, to the universe. It is just mind boggling to think about.

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