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)