Richard Feynman on flowers, artists and scientists

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Can scientists appreciate beauty? Over 30 years ago, physicist Richard Feynman claimed that a scientist can see more beauty in a flower than an artist. Since then, science and art have combined to bring the meaning of his words to life.


In the video, Feynman tells an anecdote about a friend who said that "a scientist takes [a flower] all apart and it becomes a dull thing." Was Feynman right when he argued instead that science only adds to the "excitement, mystery and awe" of the beauty of a flower?

Knowledge and beauty

Rosie Sanders, an artist with a particular interest in flowers, agrees with Feynman: "I don't believe that knowledge detracts from beauty."

"Beauty [is] a shortcut word that we all fall back on to express our response to things we find visually stimulating," says Rob Kesseler, a visual artist and Professor of Ceramic Art & Design at the University of the Arts, London. As beauty is not a definitive term, he says this can make discussions about beauty difficult.

So does Kesseler agree that science reduces art to a dull thing? "No, certainly not. Science reveals new knowledge and insights, it is down to the viewer to use or ignore what is presented."

Written By: Christopher Brooks
continue to source article at bbc.co.uk

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  1. I play guitar, drums, and bass. When I hear music, I hear it differently than a non musician. I know shit about it. When Yngwie Malmsteen hears a Pagnini solo, his brain is doing something different than when a non musician listens to ____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite band to crap on).

    A dancer who has choreographed beautiful (or not so beautiful) dance and imagery to a piece of music hears it differently than someone casually tapping their toe.

    This “difference” makes the music (in my opinion) more beautiful. I have had multiple people claim that since they can play “guitar hero”; they can play guitar. When I put a guitar in their hand they are like “wow, this is different”…. Wow indeed.

    My wife always teases that we scientists “can ruin anything” … especially when I tell her about the physiology or psychology or evolution of a kiss… etc…

    i am with Feynman. The world is better when you know things about it. Ignorance is not bliss, ignorance is ignorant. (you can quote me on that bit of tautological reasoning).

  2. I think the problem is that many people think, or act as if, they own beauty. They cherish their private, subjective and personal experiences and when those experiences aren’t affirmed by someone else, they denigrate that source of contrast. I’ve been told on many occasions that my interests are cold and sterile, be it the art I look at, the movies I watch or my ideas about the workings of reality. As a musician who knows music theory, enjoys programming drums via software and listens to elaborately composed, technically precise and rhythmically dynamic music, I’m invariably reminded about my so-called lack of humanity by people who insist that humans get their “humanness” from the dirt and immediate spontaneity of artistic expression. It’s as if there is only one end to art and the means to it do not vary. It’s very annoying, and ironic, to hear people say that I lack something if my emotions aren’t commensurate with their own while they enjoy their beautiful preferences, yet they never ask why their emotions aren’t commensurate with mine when I enjoy the things that are beautiful to me. Why is a guitar solo ruined when I can hear the melodic quality, or musical scale, of it? Why is a groove less groovy if I point out the subdivisions? Why do some people prefer to be lost in wonder while some of us want to learn about the wonderful? At the end of the day, there is something unenviable about a mind that thinks that knowledge detracts from an experience.

  3. Although I enjoyd the film The Challenger, William Hurt’s characterization of Feynman was less interesting than the man himself; mind you it would have been quite some mountain to climb to capture his essence completely.

  4. “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.” – Thomas Henry Huxley, 1854

  5. I don’t get it why an appreciation for aesthetics would be incompatible with science. In my opinion, there are too ways one can look at “beauty”: the characteristics of the object in itself, or the meanings attributed by the person to that object (and these are not mutually exclusive, one may argue you like a blue flower because of the meeaning you give to the characteristic “blue”, not the flower in it’s whole). In either perspective, knowing what makes the object be what it is shouldn’t make the person stop enjoying the object’s beauty, unless you really hate something that constitutes that object and you only find it out through science. Imagine an astronomer seeing a sci-fi movie, he might dislike if there are scientific errors, but that doesn’t mean he’ll dislike the movie as a whole, or he might, if the meaning of scientific accuracy is that important to him.

  6. As an artist, I can see more in a flower than a flower, beautiful or not, but, I guess, so to can a scientist. Dull art reduces art to a dull thing, science has nothing to do with it—unless it is being used as a tool of art.

  7. Having the pleasure of working with scientists and living in an area with a lot of labs, I take it for granted that scientists tend to have extensive appreciation and skill with the arts. They have disciplined, well-developed minds.

  8. Seem to be a few musicians here. I’m not surprised. I’ve always found music and science/technology occupations and interests seem to go together. The more one understands how music works, the better the good stuff becomes. And just because I can do the analysis, doesn’t mean that music can’t still take my breath away, send shivers down my spine, when it excels.

    Especially live, when unexpected delights can ambush my senses. Gotta throw in with Feynman here.

    • In reply to #11 by OHooligan:

      Seem to be a few musicians here. I’m not surprised. I’ve always found music and science/technology occupations and interests seem to go together. The more one understands how music works, the better the good stuff becomes. And just because I can do the analysis, doesn’t mean that music can’t still take my breath away, send shivers down my spine, when it excels.

      It really should be no surprise that physicists who study various wavelengths and wave forms, can understand sound waves and harmonics.

      On a different topic, in my student days, I decided to do some art on the side of my science studies, so when a choice of exam subjects came up, I thought that “Plant Drawing” should be a doddle for a budding botanist!
      I was somewhat disappointed when the exam paper presented a choice of a “Life” portrait of a cabbage or a lettuce!!!
      Still, my water colour of a cabbage with its fine veins and bloom on its leaves pleased the examiners enough to pass!!

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