Science Loves A Pretty Face


Science has, for long, used empirical data to estimate how close a theory is to the truth. But, not all theories, however, can be evaluated in that manner — for a plethora of reasons. In areas, such as string theory, cosmology, and evolutionary biology, for instance, arriving at how close a theory is to the truth is next to impossible.

On the contrary, most of us would be able to assess how beautiful a given object is because the features of the object are immediately apparent, or accessible. This is, in other words, a straightforward constituent required to scrutinise the given object with aesthetic judgment: one that delivers a conclusive ruling on its beauty. Not so simple, though. Because, such a descent would make, or compel, us to wonder whether we’d all use our aesthetic canvas, at the proverbial drop of a thought: to ascertain how imminent a scientific theory is to the truth.

It is not that all scientific revolution theories have had a surge of aesthetically innovative strokes. Most scientists, for instance, called several old and new theories — when first put forward — ‘ugly.’ Many astronomers, who were contemporaries, regarded Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motions as unattractive. Because, Kepler’s ‘blueprint’ portrayed planetary orbits, as ellipses — not a combination of circles. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was, likewise, disliked by many of his contemporaries as being aesthetically unacceptable — for postulating action at a distance. In recent times, quantum electrodynamics was regarded as repulsive for relying on non-standard mathematical operations for re-normalisation. The list is endless. Yet, one crucial fact remains: just as several ground-breaking theories built upon their impressive track record, they all came gradually to be declared as aesthetically appealing. As the philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon exemplified, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The credo holds good for health and medicine too. The notion of aesthetic health as Alexander Edmonds, a medical anthropologist, equates in his sublime essay, Beauty & Health: Anthropological Perspectives, is quite explicit in a practice, such as plastic surgery, although there are other examples where aesthetics and health are entwined in subtle ways. Beauty, he emphasises, is not often a static quality, but is revealed in motion: a smile, a toss of the head, displays of grace and agility. Body modification practices, likewise, paint, cut, and puncture the skin, crush, file, mould and even remove bones. Yet in addition to the art of decorating and sculpting the human form — many of which have a clear, aesthetic rationale — most societies have developed a vast range of art forms for movement, training, and performance. He adds, “The body in motion — walking, dancing, loving, playing, competing, or fighting — is not only social but often beautiful. Here again though, health can exist in tension with beauty.”

This isn’t all — as medical researchers E Materia and G Baglio argue vis-à-vis the impression of truth that medicine refers, or relates to. Evidence-based medicine [EBM], they articulate, is rooted in scientific truth. To explain the meaning and also trace the evolution of scientific truth the duo studied the outlines of the history of the scientific revolution and the parable of modernity, up to the arrival of pragmatism and hermeneutics — the philosophy and methodology of textual interpretation. It is from here, they add, the concept of truth becomes discomfiting just as the momentum leans towards the integration of different points of view. The fuzzy set theory, likewise, for the definition of disease, as well as the shift from disease to syndrome — which has operational relevance for geriatrics, a specialty that focuses on healthcare of the elderly — seems to, just as well, refer to a more complex perspective on knowledge, although it is not as well defined as nosology, or the study of disease, in use.

They explain, “Supporters of narrative medicine seek the truth in the interpretation of the patients’ stories, and take advantage of the medical humanities to find the truth in words, feelings and contact with patients. Hence, it is possible to mention the ‘parrhesia,’ or free speech, which is the frank communication espoused by Stoicism and Epicureanism, or high living, a technical and ethical quality, which allows one to care in the proper way, a true discourse for one’s own moral stance. Meanwhile, EBM and narrative medicine are converging towards a point at which medicine is considered practical knowledge.” This is also a complex equation — more so, when one thinks of the glut of medicinal side-effects and the growing dilemma of iatrogenic [drug-induced] illnesses.

Put simply, most scientists espouse and distinguish certain objective properties of theories from the subjective sense of beauty in contemplating a theory. However, not all scientists agree as to what aesthetic properties a theory must possess to influence as ‘cute.’ Yet, notwithstanding everything, aesthetic, or appealing, one thing is apparent: they often acquiesce to beauty in theories that encompass simple mathematical equations, the splendour of truth and beauty of the universe, the symmetries of nature, the sublime exquisiteness of the DNA, or Alia Bhatt’s Basic Face, among others.

There hangs a tale and its on-going saga apropos of the definition of prettiness, or comeliness, as exemplified by John Keats’ famous precept, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

— First published in The Himalayan Times, Nepal