Saturday, September 05, 2009

Science, the universe, and beauty

Today my seven-year old was reading an article in New Scientist about diamonds, where it discussed alternatives for harder materials, and arrangements of chemical structures.

It was remarkable that he read for more than two pages on a subject - chemistry - for which he clearly had little to no understanding.  Especially since it's only been a few months since he attained sufficient fluidity in reading.

 I have already outlined some of the basics of chemistry to my seven- and eight-year-olds, but since they have no specific interest in it, it will be slow going for a while.

But it got me considering the periodic table.  I'd only done chemistry to sixth form (age 16), and I haven't refreshed systematically since.  So I glanced at the subject in Encyclopedia Britannica - one of their rare shows of colour was the periodic table, page 952 of volume 15.

It was in discussion of the chemical composition of the earth, and the origin of elements in stars, that I realised there was a whole new area of fundamental systematics for me to absorb with adult eyes.

And then I was reminded of a piece in today's Good Weekend: in Stephanie Dowrick's Inner Life column which tends, I guess, to discuss the secular spiritual.  (I'm not generally taken by her, preferring the following columnist, Mark Dapin, who is surprisingly readable for a magazine humour column.)

Dowrick was querying one's "eye for beauty".  Looked like she was focusing on the visually beauty, but she eventually redeemed herself with other examples: children, poetry, music.

Of course, I find beauty in the analytical, in making sense of things that provide an internal logic and coherency.  The more fundamental the better, such as physics, evolutionary biology... and chemistry.  To see natural patterns and logic that are inherent and immutable: they describe a natural rhythm, a joyous music of the universe that is unsullied by human hand.

It takes a particular temperament to find joy in that sort of beauty*.  I feel privileged.

*One who does is someone I've previously mentioned, Daniel Tammet, a savant with Asperger's, who finds beauty in numbers.  That's numbers for themselves, as opposed to beauty in more complex mathematics, for which I have given a wonderful example here.

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