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Who wants an army of data drones?: Introducing science and beauty

Who wants an army of data drones?: Introducing science and beauty

Nick Spencer introduces Theos’ latest research exploring the realms of Science and Beauty. 13/01/2023

Like many people, I rather enjoyed the actor Simon Pegg’s recent outburst at Rishi Sunak’s “maths–til–you’re–18” proposal. It’s available here, in all its sweary glory, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure.

“What about arts, and humanities, and fostering this country’s great reputation for creativity?” Pegg asked, incandescent. “No. Rishi Sunak wants a f**king drone army of data entering robots.”

It’s probably fair to say that Pegg had the Prime Minister in his sights here rather than mathematics per se but, even so, maths doesn’t come well out of his rant. With some reason did Marcus du Sautoy, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, take Pegg gently to task.

“Dear Simon Pegg,” he wrote on twitter (how did celebrities communicate with one another before twitter?):

“Maths is a hugely creative subject that underpins many creative industries: architecture, animation, special effects, music. To equate mathematicians with a drone army of data entering robots shows why a maths for artists 16–18 course would be a great idea.”

However seriously we take this particular exchange (and I suggest “not too” would be about right), it nonetheless does lift the curtain on a rather pervasive point of view. Many people consider maths (and by association the sciences) as methodical, unimaginative, process–based, uncreative, certainly in comparison with the arts, literature, the humanities. No doubt there are good reasons for this. Much maths and science teaching can be uninspiring (though, in all fairness, so can much humanities teaching). But there is also something deeper going on here. The idea that maths and science might themselves be beautiful, affecting, or creative seems a bit fantastical, and not just because they are sometimes taught badly.

In essence, this is another example of what the novelist and chemist C.P. Snow once famously called the “Two Cultures”. His idea was that Western intellectual life had become painfully divided between science and the humanities, in such a way as damaged our ability to navigate the world successfully. Science is about getting stuff right; the humanities are about making the world beautiful.

As a description of public perception, it is hard to disagree with him. Pegg surely speaks for many when he associates maths with dreary, stultifying rote–learning. The idea that it or the scientific edifice that is built on it, might be creative, elegant, emotional, inspiring – beautiful – is absurd.

And yet, listen to what some of history’s great scientists themselves have to say on the topic. Not only do they think their subject is beautiful – well, they would do, wouldn’t they? – but they believe it is actually about beauty. It reveals a deep sense of beauty in the world. It is led and guided by this beauty. It is even corrected by this beauty. 

“It is… the search for this special beauty, the sense of the harmony of the world, that makes us select the facts best suited to contribute to this harmony,” wrote the French mathematician and theoretical physicist, Henri Poincaré. “If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great simplicity and beauty… that no one has previously encountered,” Werner Heisenberg remarked to Einstein, “we cannot help thinking that they are ‘true,’ that they reveal a genuine feature of nature.” Or, most bullishly, in the words of British physicist Paul Dirac, “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” Maths and science can not only be beautiful, so the argument goes. They are about beauty.

Seriously? Is this not completely far–fetched? Do scientists really think that? What proportion of working physicists share the concern for beauty expressed by some of their discipline’s greatest figures? To what extent is this limited only to maths and physics? How far do other, perhaps ‘messier’, scientific disciplines, such as those within the life sciences, share the same interest and concern? To what extent is this interest in beauty a culturally specific, even culturally conditioned, phenomenon? And what, if any, impact does this attention to beauty have? In particular, is it a guide to truth itself – as the physicists above seemed to think – or does that load it with more weight than beauty can bear?

Over the last two years, Theos has been working with The Catholic University of America on a study entitled Work and Well–Being in Science. The project is a large, international research programme exploring the role of key factors that affect the well–being of scientists, focussing primarily on physicists and biologists from India, Italy, the UK, and the US. The study examined a wide range of topics, including meaning and identity in work, and scientists’ assessments of their workplace cultures, but our collaboration focused on the significance and the role of aesthetics in scientific work. 

To mark the publication of this research we have assembled a blog series from a range of thinkers who have pondered deeply on this matter. Each offers their own particular take on the question of what beauty has to do with science (not all of them convinced that it has anything to do with it). The blogs will be published, along with the report, next week.

The purpose of the blogs, and the report is to explore the relationship between science and beauty, and – more than that – between science and beauty and truth. And this is because, as Dominic McGann notes in his piece on science and beauty in the Middle Ages, once upon a time, in an intellectual culture saturated with Christian convictions, there was a powerful sense that truth and beauty (and goodness) were united in God, the ultimate ground of all there was, and that to study that creation revealed something of his transcendent goodness.

As I said, not everyone today agrees (the theologian Bethany Sollereder certainly doesn’t and, in her blog, explains why with great clarity and force.) But a surprising number of our interviewees did see a connection. And that persistent association, centuries after European intellectual life splintered into different confessions, cultures, and disciplines, invites wider questions: about the nature of the creation in which we live, the capacities of the human mind, and the existence of the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos


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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 13 January 2023

Beauty, Beauty and Truth, Belief, Faith, Science, Truth


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