Brandon Vaidyanathan | Beauty in Science

As a sociologist, Brandon Vaidyanathan has been studying what scientists think about beauty. Some people might be surprised that scientists think much about beauty at all, but for many scientists, beauty is an important reason for why they do the work that they do. Brandon talks about his research and the different ways scientists understand beauty to be a part of understanding the world.

Makes me think of when I was in my university student days and some mathematicians had come up with a way to define the beauty of human faces mathematically. The foundation was using geometry to categorize faces and then asking thousands of university students to rate samples of faces from their collection. As they refined their equations something surprising became clear: beautiful faces weren’t on the edge of a standard distribution curve, they were in a narrow band in the center! In other words, the most beautiful faces were the most mathematically average.

Later work demonstrated that the idea of facial beauty is very much dependent on the culture one grew up in; beauty to a person from culture A was only loosely related to the curve they’d already established but again turned out to be the mathematically most average faces from culture A, and that someone who grew up in culture A but moved to live in another place with another culture, it was not the faces most mathematically average to their new location they found beautiful, but those mathematically closest to those from culture A.

Something they rebutted was that there was a “white” idea of beauty and a “black” idea of beauty and so on because there were numerous cultures inside those two categories whose ideas of beauty differed. One example given was the standard of beauty for Russian women as compared to (I think) Spanish women: the two had such different views of beauty that each found the other’s idea of beauty to verge on repulsive!

I’ve thought about that off and on over time and wondered at the fact that our brains seem to know the mathematically average face in our culture without even knowing any math, and wondered further if that applies to anything else. For example, does our idea of a beautiful beach match the mathematically average beach of those we’ve seen? or does our idea of a beautiful forest match the mathematical average of the forests we’ve seen? (Ignoring for the moment the problem of mathematically describing different beaches or forests.)

Another thought I’ve pondered is the genetics of it: does a mathematically average appearance correspond to a healthy gene set?


I decided to make two posts here because the content is so different; this one looks at pieces of the interview.

I think it’s very difficult to transmit knowledge without communicating that ideal of here’s what a good study looks like, here’s what a good journal article looks like. Here’s what a good diagram or a table or a well-designed experiment looks like.

I really have to agree with that. In upper level geology and physics courses one emphasis was basically all those things, sort of summed up in how to write a journal article because writing a good journal article depends on having a well-designed set of experiments, good diagrams, and good tables. But a lot of it was tedious, and someone mentioned that one day to a grad assistant, and his reply was revealing, basically that you’ll never get it by learning all the structures and methods, you’ll get it one day when you recognize that the pattern feels right, that there’s balance and focus. Given this interview, I’d dare to venture that this grad assistant was telling us that there’s a certain beauty to doing science, and a certain beauty in reporting it, and if you recognize the beauty you’ll get things right, but if you can’t grasp the beauty you’ll only ever be second-rate.

Part of my inclination is to say that beauty can derail us from truth and goodness, and we need to try to find where beauty is tethered to truth and to goodness. It’s also bad I think to have truth without beauty, to try to, as a lot of religious education tends to be, which is unfortunate. But that’s really I think what drives actually even a lot of scientists we’ve talked to, what drives them away from religion is not science, but it’s religion itself and how religion is communicated. And so beauty is really important.

(emphasis mine)
Not just religious education but religious teaching in general. My first thought here was of how elegant the openings of the Old Testament are when you grasp the original language and literary type and the culture that shaped those and the worldview(s) that underlie the culture, as opposed to how – for lack of a better word – “clunky” YECism is. I think that may be part of my almost visceral reaction to YECism, that it seems like a patchwork job of things stuck together than don’t really fit and in order to try to make it fit they throw away much, even most, of the beauty in those opening scriptures.
And I think that’s one reason I appreciate the fact that there are mythologizing elements in the early stories, that the stories were just part of a culture that were handed down until someone recognized that the story was missing the actual main point and so they re-wrote it to put God in the center of the picture. Then it doesn’t matter how big Noah’s Flood was, or even when it happened because the important thing is that there was someone who knew the story as it had been told for generations and thought, this may be an awesome adventure tale but I want to show people how it was God at the center of it, and so he edited the tale to put the real beauty in the middle of things. We rarely think about the authors at all except to argue who really wrote something, but we should be recognizing that these writers and editors wanted to communicate something about God, and they used the material familiar to them and others to do that.

So people who consider themselves spiritual, whether or not they’re religious, they’re more inclined to, they experience awe more frequently in their workplace and in their scientific work. That’s the only variables. We’ve got measures for awe and wonder and beauty. And beauty here means things like seeing the hidden order or inner logic of things or symmetry or elegance. . . . . And then we have experiences of awe, which is more a sense of being pulled out of oneself, being in the presence of something grand or vast, et cetera. And then wonder is that sense of childlike delight at discovering something or being kept up at night by a problem, et cetera.

Thinking back to a couple of geology courses I think there was a definite correlation between students who saw some new thing and were like, “Oh, wow, awesome!” and those who got the best grades. Another correlation was seen in fieldwork; those who got excited over something and wanted to really get into it also tended to be those who got the best grades. An example that comes to mind is two guys when we were exploring this miles-long lava tube that actually branched over a mile down, so we came back up and out the other branch from what we’d gone down. The striking thing about the branch we exited through was that it had “blowholes” and collapse holes in the ceiling, and the way to know which was which was that a collapse hole had a mound of debris from the surface under it while a blowhole, since it resulted from lava pushing upwards and out, only had the small amount of material that weather had tossed down. We’d been looking up through the different holes as we went, all wishing we could get a better look at the holes themselves, and when we came to a blowhole that was smaller and in a section where the ceiling was only eight feet high or so. These two guys looked at it and one said, “Give me a boost”, and he got up and stood on the other guy’s shoulders, then got a grip with both hands and proceeded to swing up one foot and then the other and climbed up the blowhole a few feet, shoulders against one side and feet against the other; once well-braced, he pulled off his belt and hung it down to grab, and I stood so the second guy could use me for a ladder essentially, and the second guy used the belt and a foothold to swing up and climb after the first guy.
The professor chewed them out over safety, but they laughed it off and just asked her if she’d ever gotten that close a look at a blowhole. She had, but it was done with a ladder lowered from above. And the first guy replied that in that case she’d never really experienced the beauty of it because she hadn’t really interacted with it.

…work done by Anjan Chatterjee and colleagues at UPenn, suggests that there are some cultural universals it seems, there tends to be more of a preference towards symmetry in faces. . . . And even the symmetry in some of that research isn’t completely aligned, because there’s a sense in which we don’t like perfect symmetry. If faces are perfectly symmetrical they’re less pleasing than very slight asymmetries.

Yay! I hadn’t gotten this far yet when I wrote my earlier comment; I think the “slight asymmetries” part wasn’t in the results I read. Interestingly that fits with the Navajo concept of beauty (as it was explained to me), that true beauty has tiny little flaws you don’t notice but your brain sees.

Then there’s the bit about people preferring more sadness in their music – that struck me as a bit strange, though the discussion of not feeling at home in this life resonated with me; I like sort of triumphal music that points to something I’ll never be able to attain… though it could be argued that there’s a certain sadness in that.

Then at the end there’s reference to “lifelong love of science” which struck me because most of the science professors I took courses from were Christians, and they had all come to do science because they wanted to get deeper into the beauty of creation. Of course the deeper into the science they got, the more beauty they found, so being in and teaching science for those Christian professors was practically a love affair.
Which is why I don’t understand at all the people who seem to proudly announce that science pushes people away from God: I can’t comprehend how that is even possible! It’s like saying that an art student would be pushed away from art by delving into understand why Monet pained one way while Picasso painted another – when in my experience art students get excited about those things; or that a trumpet player studying the physics of trumpet sounds would drive that player away from loving music – when the two trumpet players I knew who were studying for an M.S. in music (with a trumpet specialty) could get ecstatically eloquent about the metals and shapes and valves and such of how a trumpet makes and then changes a note.

Which brings me to a final point: I have yet to encounter an atheist who was able to grasp that Christians don’t believe in God as an explanation for things we don’t understand so that it isn’t an argument from a gap but is rather an argument from elegance or beauty – and that all the gaps do for most Christians in science is to stir them to push into the gap to see how God did things. They don’t seem able to understand that “God did it” doesn’t end inquiry, it spurs it!


Those are probably more significantly influenced by what the individual perceives as positive characters than just what they have experienced: I would find a relatively natural beach or forest more beautiful than a rather non-natural one, regardless of their other characters. I think that I might also tend to find it difficult to compare the different types of beauty in different natural settings within such broad categories, say mixed ohia forest vs. one mostly consisting of redwoods.

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Then there are pieces that are both sad and triumphant: many Easter hymns come to mind.

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There are studies in both humans and non-humans showing that symmetry of traits on the left and right sides of the body are preferred, and such symmetry may indicate good genes, or a good environment when growing up (see “fluctuating asymmetry” in Wikipedia for a quick overview). I believe in humans, symmetrical faces were generally considered more “beautiful” than asymmetrical faces in experiments, but artificially generated computer-images that were totally and perfectly symmetrical were not the most preferred. Apparently, even subconsciously, respondents in the studies could tell that such images were “artificial”? and such perfect faces would fall outside the range of what natural selection would have been exposed to.

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Interesting, though when the first study in the area was done computer-generated faces weren’t all that great. I presume that this capability has helped in the research in more ways than one: as I understand it, some of the follow-up research seeking to confirm the conclusions of the first used many thousands of images collected from a variety of sources, and the ability to alter those images subtly would be of great value.

But that reminds me of something from the early studies: symmetrical by itself was only a low-level indicator as anything too far off the mathematical average for a given society was still not considered beautiful.

Yes, I haven’t followed the research on human mate choice preferences very closely, but it would not surprise me if there were physical attributes other than symmetry which differ between cultural groups, and which may be “learned” based on experience within the group one grows up in, and what one experiences as “typical” or “average” traits in that group. From an evolutionary perspective, it probably makes sense not to choose an attribute that is wildly off the population mean value…

Hi, (and @St.Roymond ).

Re: the “beauty” of different landscapes and forest types. At a scientific conference I attended in 1986, I recall a behavioral scientist presenting a study where human subjects were shown different types of landscapes with different types and densities of vegetation, and sizes and species of trees. For example, the subject was asked to rank a grassland with no trees contrasted with a grassland with scattered coniferous trees vs. a grassland with scattered deciduous-type branching trees, versus dense rainforests etc etc.

I don’t recall all the variables he analyzed, but the overall preference was for a “parkland” -like landscape that was generally open understory, with scattered hardwood-type trees, of medium size with low branches. The researcher reasoned that this probably resembled the African Savanna landscapes where humans evolved, and that people may have retained this innate preference because a generally open understory and landscape would allow one to see predators and other approaching dangers from a distance. And the trees with branches would could be climbed for safety, if needed, to escape from predators (eg. in contrast to conifer trees with no large low branches).


Oh, Interesting, apparently that concept is alive and well and is now called the “Savannah Hypothesis” of landscape preference. A link to a recent article:


Something that fascinates me here is that the natives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley deliberately managed the landscape in ways that maintained it as an oak savanna by regular burning of the dry grass at the ends of summers. The burning drove wildlife out where they could be easily killed, and it suppressed seedlings except near existing mature trees or in spots that got missed by fire for a few years in a row, so the existing small clusters of oak trees maintained themselves and occasionally new clusters got started. The moment settlers moved in and dominated the savanna started reverting to forest because they didn’t set fire to the grass after harvests.
One of my botany professors was involved in establishing regular burning in a couple of nature preserves that had gone from savanna to oak forest to tangled forest as underbrush from outside got established among the trees. As a step towards returning to oak savanna the healthiest oak clusters were chosen in a hundred-acre plot and the rest of the trees were removed, leaving grassland. One “fly in the ointment” was an old homestead with protected status that had originally had an orchard of several types of apples, but after a couple of generations of benign neglect apple trees had spread: under the protected status the apple trees couldn’t just be removed, so as the land was slowly returned to savanna status the groves weren’t just oak but also had apple trees! plus where the original orchards had been the oaks and other trees and brush were removed – though that made for very haphazard orchards since most of the original trees were gone (not surprising after over a century) and the existing trees were their offspring and didn’t occur in tidy rows.
To top this off, it was the near-unanimous view of all us botany students that the restored portions of the savanna were more beautiful!

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