Friday 3 June 2022: 2pm BST
Presenter: Dr Milena Ivanova (University of Cambridge)
Chair: Dr Alice Murphy (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich)
Respondents: Dr Claire Anscomb (University of Liverpool) and Dr Alice Murphy
Abstract: Scientific products have long been valued for their aesthetic features and compared to works of art. We hear that Einstein’s relativity theory, the double helix structure of DNA and images of colliding particles are beautiful, and that just like works of art, they evoke in us aesthetic responses. Scientists themselves, like artists, are praised for their creativity, originality and aesthetic sensibility. For instance, Einstein famously argued that Michelson, who designed the famous experiment to measure the velocity of the Earth relative to the ether, was ‘the artist in science’, claiming that Michelson did not only care for devising a good experiment, but wanted his creations to be beautiful too.
In this panel meeting we ask an underexplored question in philosophy: what makes scientific experiments aesthetically valuable and is aesthetic evaluation appropriate when it comes to scientific products? The paper starts by presenting a three-fold way to think about the aesthetic value of scientific experiments. First, there is an obvious immediate answer to this question: scientific experiments reveal pleasing phenomena or pleasing set ups. This answer certainly captures something important about experiments, they can reveal to us nature’s beauty and they can do so by utilising pleasing instruments, but I will argue that it is not a satisfactory answer. Let us consider an example to illustrate why this is so. Foucault’s Pendulum experiment allows us to illustrate three important ways in which an experiment can be beautiful. The experiment was designed to demonstrate that the Earth rotates on its axis. In 1851 Léon Foucault hung a heavy brass weight from a long cable fixed to the inside of the dome of the Pantheon in Paris. When he set this pendulum in motion it swung slowly back and forth tracing lines in sand beneath it. After some time it became clear that the lines traced were not all in one line because of the Earth’s rotation beneath the pendulum. If we ask what is beautiful about this experiment, there is an immediate answer: its visual features. We can regard the pendulum itself as beautiful, as a kind of kinetic sculpture with an almost mesmeric slow back and forth movement. Scientific equipment can certainly be beautiful: from chemical retorts and prisms to complicated instruments and detectors built in laboratories. Furthermore, the phenomena we study in the experimental set up can also be beautiful: copper sulphate crystals, rainbows produced by prisms, and the microscopic structure of cells are all aesthetically pleasing to observe. But I argue that the ultimate beauty of experiments is found in their design and purpose. The beauty of Foucault’s experiment goes much deeper beyond the visual, immediately accessible to us, features. It lies in showing the effects of the Earth’s rotation, something important that hadn’t been demonstrated before, in an ingenious, imaginative, and elegant way. The pendulum itself was beautiful, but the ultimate beauty of the experiment is a combination of its significance and its design.
To illustrate my argument in more depth I further analyse another experiment, known as ‘the most beautiful experiments in biology’, designed by Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl to discover how DNA replicates. I discuss the reception of this experiment by the scientific community to identify what was valued about the experiment and identify several features pertaining to design: simplicity, economy and aptness, and significance and clarity of results. One of the reasons why this experiment is celebrated in science is because it is an example of a crucial experiment, it settled decisively the question on how DNA replicates, by selecting semi-conservative replication over the two alternative hypotheses that were entertained. A further aspect of the experiment’s aesthetic value is not only what it taught us but how it did so and this later consideration concerns its design. Following the reasoning behind the experimental set up reveals the elegant design the experimenters created. The idea behind the experiment is considered beautiful and ingenious, the fact that by making the genetic material initially heavy and then light, Meselson and Stahl could extract and measure the weight of the genetic material though the next generations. It is in this idea that their design was original and elegant, they used the optimal materials and technique for the job. As such, the experiment integrates elegant design and involves innovative and creative thinking.
Next, I explore the asymmetry between experiments a century ago and experiments today, reflecting on the fact that while past experiments, like the Meselson-Stahl experiments, often involved a few scientists in a room, relatively cheap equipment and often the results could be perceived or established without lengthy interpretative work, today, experiments look rather different. I focus on the experiments ran at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, which not too long ago detected the Higgs boson, vindicating the Standard Model. This experiment involves highly complex machinery and data analysis, it is a result of collaborative work between thousands of scientists, and the very boundary of the experiment transcends the borders of countries. Given their complexity and size, I ask whether these large-scale experiments fit with previous aesthetic ideals, whether they have become aesthetically disvalued, or whether they can still be praised for their aesthetic features. It is undeniable that contemporary experiments are highly complex; from the machinery they use to the data they produce, these experiments overwhelm with their size and set up. However, I argue that despite their complexity, large-scale experiments continue to be praised for their apt design and the creativity and originality they exhibit.
Last, I consider the case of some experiments that exhibit elegant and beautiful design and are well built for purpose, but obtain null results, asking whether they can be aesthetically appreciated. I examine the Michelson-Morley experiment and argue that this experiment is aesthetically valuable even though it turned out that there is no such thing as ether. Contrary to Meselson and Stahl, who delivered an answer aligning to scientific expectation, the results of the Michaelson and Morley experiments were disruptive, but I argue that it is this disruptive nature of the result that was both aesthetically and epistemically valuable. It prompted the experience of wonder and disruption by identifying the limitations of our knowledge and prompted exploration of new ideas, leading to the development of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the abandonment of the Newtonian framework. The design was beautiful, the set up careful and original, the results were disruptive, surprising and awe-provoking. I propose that such experiments, just like many artworks that challenge our fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world can do, can deliver results that prompt us to reconsider our working assumptions. Their aesthetic significance is intricately related to our state of understanding and illustrates the diverse nature of the aesthetic experiences scientific products and artworks can elicit.
The full version of this paper is available here:
To register interest, please email the Chair at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Chair will send the Zoom link via private message to the registered participants and on the day will give access to the Zoom room only to registered accounts. The panel will use the speaker’s professional Zoom account, and will have shared control access with the Chair.