Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Art and Beauty of Science

The Art and Beauty of Science

Ideals of beauty often arise in everyday discussions of romance, art, and literature, but speak of science, and the word “beautiful" does not immediately come to mind. Science writer and philosopher Dr. Robert Crease begs to differ.

"There is an aesthetics to science, and it is not incidental," says author Robert Crease. Patricia Calzo Vega
“I've heard a lot of scientists describe an experiment as beautiful, and I kept wondering if they meant it metaphorically. My aim in writing was to show that [scientific processes] are really beautiful, that they use the same meaty, substantial sense of beauty that we use for sculpture and art. There is an aesthetics to science, and it is not incidental," shares Crease, who was in Manila recently for the Café Scientifique public lecture organized by the Mind Museum.

“What is the most beautiful experiment in physics, and why is it so?"

Science is really beautiful. It uses the same sense of beauty that we use for sculpture and art. 

— Robert Crease
When Crease posed this question to his regular readers at Physics World, he found out that the philosophical ideals of beauty in art are equally applicable to science.

“For philosophers, there are three different ways that you can consider something as beautiful. One is if it concerns deep or fundamental things. Plato and Heidegger have that view of beauty.

“There's another concept that it’s beautiful if it's efficient, if it's perfectly balanced. You get a feeling from a beautiful object that you can't add or take anything away from it, or it will be less perfect somehow.

There is beauty in science, argues Robert Crease. This photo shows the delicate patterns traced by subatomic particles in a cloud chamber.

“Another property of a beautiful object is that it's satisfying. You look at them and you're convinced," Crease enumerated.

Over two hundred experiments were identified by readers as “beautiful" —and the top ten embodied all three characteristics.

Science verité
Although Crease’s book ideas germinate from his monthly column in a publication whose readers are of a decidedly scientific bent, The Prism and the Pendulum and The Great Equations take the approach of social history, describing the milieu that enables these scientific breakthroughs to flourish, and their succeeding cultural impact on society.

His next book, forthcoming in October, focuses on something more mundane:

Crease's next book is about the development of measurement systems around the world. Leonardo da Vinci'sVitruvian Man
“Once upon a time every area of the world had their own measurement system, and they were peculiar and related to local practices. And in the remarkable period of 200 years, all these systems became replaced by the metric system. How did that happen and what's the cultural significance of that?" he enthuses.

More global in scope than his previous topics —which had an unwitting bias towards science in Western civilization— Crease’s ruminations journey from Africa to China, and may provide insight on the cultural shift from local systems to a global standard.

The neglect of science is common in history books
—even in ones that profess to care about oppressed and underprivileged peoples. 

— Robert Crease
By anchoring science on narratives that enable readers to grasp the social and scientific gaps that a certain experiment or equation attempted to address, the books succeed in engaging less academic readers —a feat made more commendable by the fact that science seems to be viewed as being “outside history."

In his book, Crease explores the intersection of science and culture.
“The neglect of science, indeed, is common in history books —most disturbingly, even in books that profess to care about the masses, and oppressed and underprivileged peoples…It says nothing, for instance, of the struggles to reduce childhood mortality, to increase life expectancy, or to develop systems of mass transportation," writes Crease, in an interlude chapter of The Great Equations.

Desperately seeking science
That Crease is able to write popular science books with consistent readership indicates the presence of a vibrant scientific culture in the United States, one which the Philippines sorely lacks.

In the paper Science Education in the Philippines: An Overview, multi-awarded mathematics educator Dr. Milagros Ibe and Dr. Ester Ogena of the Science Education Institute identify the indicators of a strong science culture as a vibrant science community; high proportions of enrolment in science courses; public and private support for research; and a population with a high regard for the scientific professions.

The Philippines sorely lacks a vibrant scientific culture.
We are ranked 38th and 40th among 41 countries in math and science, respectively.

Recent tertiary enrollment data from theCommission on Higher Education shows that students taking up the natural sciences, whose career track lies in research, are considerably lower than those enrolling in more “employable" degrees.

The estimated enrolments for schoolyear 2010-2011 show 21,329 natural science students as opposed to 634.073 for business related degrees, and 654,611 for those enrolled in allied health degrees.

Choosing a career in scientific research is often preceded by a childhood interest in the subject. And while children may be naturally curious about their environment and the way things work, this interest should be nurtured by adequate science and math education in the schools.

Unfortunately, the math and science scores of Filipino students are far from exemplary. In the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Philippines ranked 38th and 40th among 41 countries testing for math and science, respectively. In 2003, the country ranked 42nd and 41st out of 45 countries for high school level science and math; the Philippines has since stopped participating in the study. Iba and Ogena note the lack of qualified science educators, and the emphasis on lecture-discussions instead of hands-on learning.

With most schools unable to provide the ideal science education for Filipino youth, interest must be fostered through other channels, and interactive science exhibition center may hold the key.

To date, there are two public science centers in the country. The Philippine Science Centrum, now located in Marikina Riverbanks, opened its doors in 1990, and hosts a number of interactive exhibits that demonstrate basic physics xoncepts. The Nido Fortified Science Discovery Center in SM Mall of Asia, on the other hand, offers a more “high-tech" environment, with virtual flight simulators, robotics exhibits, and a digital planetarium.

Kids' natural curiousity about their environment and the way things work should be nurtured by adequate science and math education.

And slated to open in December 2011 is the Bonifacio Art Foundation’s Mind Museum, which aims to be the first world-class science museum in the Philippines. Highlights to watch out for include a permanent Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibit, habitat simulations, an interactive outdoor science park, and galleries focusing on the impact of technology on society, the development of science in the Philippines, and Crease’s ten most beautiful experiments in science.

Cultivating a scientific culture takes considerable time and effort, but with these initial steps, perhaps the next generation of Filipino students will find science beautiful enough to pursue.

Source: gma news

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