Beauty, chemistry, and natural philosophy

Summer reflections

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About a year ago, Theral Timpson interviewed Stanford chemist Carolyn Bertozzi on his Mendelspod podcast.  I only heard the show recently and enjoyed it.  The title caught my attention: “Is the future of biology a return to chemistry?”

Bertozzi made some interesting comments about her field, which she regards as “the central science,” and Timpson probed her about her expectations for the place of chemistry in what is otherwise expected to be “the century of biology.”

The discussion was of interest to me for two reasons.  First, I agree that chemistry has a central place in our understanding of the world, especially if we look at it from within a framework of natural philosophy, which is a great passion of mine.  My next natural philosophy paper will focus on molecules, and will follow a paper on cell biology that will come out toward the end of the year.  I hope these papers will contribute toward a reconciliation of the two disciplines.

Another part of the podcast that piqued my interest is when Bertozzi told Timpson about the new center she is heading at Stanford, the ChEM-H (Chemist, Engineering, Medicine for Human Health).  She was particularly excited about the multi-disciplinary aspect of the new center.  She commented that in her previous position at UC Berkeley she was in a traditional chemistry department, and therefore mostly surrounded by other chemists.

This brought to mind passages from a book I am currently reading, titled The Way of Beauty, by David Clayton, an icon artist, teacher, and writer whom I met recently.  Originally from England, David now lives in the SF Bay area and is spearheading an effort to revive a method of formation in the sense of beauty that used to be a cornerstone of Catholic education until about two hundred years ago.

The book is terrific, a real eye-opener to an entire theory of beauty and aesthetics that I was only vaguely familiar with.  Anchored in mathematics, the tradition was first developed by the ancient Greeks, but later elaborated and given symbolic meaning by Christians, starting with St. Augustine and going through the end of the baroque period.  The tradition is very elaborate.

The idea was that mathematics and number theory help identify and connect with the order of divine creation.  In turn, human beings use mathematical theory and the sense of harmonious proportion in their creative work, both for worship but also in the elaboration of any artifacts (including functional creations, like buildings).  The concern for numbers and harmonious proportions has been essentially abandoned for the last two to three hundred years, both in secular as well as religious circles.  There is a false understanding that staying faithful to harmonious proportions inhibits creativity.

Most provocative is David’s argument that developing this sense of beauty is important not only for artists, but in any work or professional activity.  In science, for example, David relates the case of how intuition of the tetractys helped physicists postulate the existence of a certain subatomic particle and eventually discover it.

The book also mentions surviving documents from architectural conferences that took place in Milan in the late 14th century regarding the building of a cathedral.  Architects were in disagreement about a change in design midway into the project.  The building was initially started following a geometry based upon the square, and one party wanted to complete the project by switching to a geometry based upon the triangle.

The dispute was not just about the style, but about the fact that the the switch could affect the functionality and structural soundness of the building.  The principle invoked by those wanting to keep the square geometry was ars sine scientia est nihile (art is nothing without science).  In other words, man’s works must be faithful to the knowledge of the fundamental principles of science–in this case, principles of harmonious proportion.

Going back to Carolyn Bertozzi’s comments, another part of the book talks about education in general, and David has a chapter in which he discusses the organizational pattern of Oxford University where he went to school.  I was not aware that Oxford (and Cambridge) have a unique organizational structure that has been retained from when they were established 800 years ago.

Unlike most modern universities, which are centrally administered and subdivided by academic departments, Oxford and Cambridge are decentralized and composed of highly autonomous colleges.  This fosters a great sense of community among students and allows, at least in principle, for cross-fertilization of ideas and the flourishing of a wide diversity of interests.

David connects the organizational structure at Oxbridge to the fact that the founding colleges hosted true communities (in those days, various religious orders).  The mission of the university as a place of learning was communal, the buildings were designed to reflect cosmic beauty, and life at Oxford was patterned so as to be inspired by divine wisdom.  The idea of academic silos would have been considered really antithetical to the effort of learning and discovering.

At any rate, I find all this very stimulating and I hope you do too…

6 thoughts on “Beauty, chemistry, and natural philosophy

  1. Sounds like a great book, Michel–I’ll check it out.

    I know about the English system first hand, having had the chance to be at Trinity College (built by Henry VIII) for a semester. A typical day included an optional lecture in the morning, a visit to the Wren library at Trinity, reading poetry in the magnificent Trinity chapel at the feet of statues of Tennyson and Newton (Trinity alumni); then on to the college’s own pub for a drink with the fellows (professors) and other students before going to the great dining hall for dinner where you could end up sitting next to anyone.

    We have nothing like that in the U.S., except perhaps summer camp.

    The ChEM-H needs some philosophy, too.

    • Sounds like a great time. And yes, I will volunteer my services for ChEM-H…Professor Bertozzi was stumped by the “what is health?” question! 🙂

  2. Ever since reading Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” in 2014, I have been thinking about the relationship between mathematics as a “language” and its relationship with form and beauty….and even health!

    • Yes. In a way this is reconciling me to the idea that there is a relationship between mathematics and health. In the last few years I became very opposed to the forced quantifications introduced in healthcare by way of aggregate outcomes, statistical analyses, etc. but there is another aspect here that is completely different and worth developing a sense of.

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