Monday, April 12, 2010

4/12: Elegance in Science

Last Update: 04-14-2010 11:22:29

We have all heard the popular story of Watson and Crick proclaiming that they knew that their discovery of the structure of DNA was right because it was so beautiful. This story is evoked often as an example of the importance of the visual in leading discovery thus begging the debate between art as a hand maiden to science or a cognitive tool for exploration. What is the role of art/visual culture as we advance in our understanding of evolution - past, present, and dare I ask, future?

04-12-2010 09:24:30
Thanks, JD, for bringing this up. I am just beginning to think about this topic and will offer a few opening thoughts and look forward to the group’s reflections.

“Elegance” is more than pretty language in science; it is a term of art. Its opposite is “brute force”: where you learn the answer by, say, methodologically grinding through all possible solutions until you find the right one.

Here’s an example of an elegant solution: What is the sum of all the whole numbers from 1 to 100? The brute-force solution is to go, “One plus two is three, plus three is six, plus four is ten,” on up to 100. The elegant solution is to recognize the symmetry of the set of digits: 1+99=100, 2+98=100, 3+97= 100, and so forth. There are fifty such pairs, 1–49, folded about the number 50 in the middle. The answer, then, can be reached in seconds by anyone with 4th grade math skills: 50x100+50=5,050.

An elegant experiment has the same qualities of simplicity, cleverness, and incisiveness. As an experimental strategy, it values insight over effort. There’s an obvious mathematics envy here, but it is not just professional jealousy. The mathematical aesthetic—austere, simple, and effortless—imports more successfully into some sciences than others. Newtonian mechanics is elegant; quantum mechanics is not. The Copernican universe was accepted not because it enabled better predictions than the Ptolemaic model—it didn’t—but because it explained the behavior of the heavens with a smaller number of assumptions and principles.

In biology, genetics is more elegant than biochemistry. “Shotgun” DNA sequencing is brute-force; the Meselson-Stahl experiment, which proved the semi-conservative replication of DNA has been called the “most beautiful experiment in the world.” Part of what is so compelling about the tale of the double helix, I submit, is that it is doubly elegant. The double helix itself was too pretty not to be true, Watson crowed—it solved the problem of how to faithfully transmit genetic information to the next cellular generation. And Watson and Crick’s model-building approach to the double helix was the epitome of elegance. It relied on a minimum of data, which—adding a frisson of human fallibility—they didn’t even collect themselves!

Elegance is, in short, an aesthetic used as a principle of reasoning. I am starting to think about what elegance buys you, and what it costs, intellectually. What kinds of environments of equipment, funding, collaboration, and so forth tend to foster elegance, and whether certain types of problems lend themselves to this kind of aesthetic thinking. And, overarchingly, what is the role of aesthetics not just in the production of scientific knowledge but in thinking about nature and designing experiments?

The Copernican model

The Ptolemaic model, with epicycles

Celera's "shotgun" method of genome sequencing

The Meselson-Stahl experiment


04-12-2010 11:41:03
I think that Nathaniel’s comments about elegance are quite interesting. One of my favorite stories of the visual being a tool for cognitive exploration is about Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Cajal was the father of modern neurobiology and an outstanding artist in his own right. His illustrations of the nervous systems are elegant and from them he was lead to draw accurate conclusions about how information flows through the cells in the retina (before our ability to physiologically test those ideas).

His skills as a microscopist were informed by his childhood desire to be an artist. As a young student, he spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to mix watercolors to effectively capture natural colors. If I recall his autobiography correctly, he even kept an watercolor “lab book” recording all the color samples and the combinations to create them. He was especially obsessed with the colors of flowers. This approach to drawing out nature through the manipulation of colors and stains in conjunction with his willingness to experiment artistically would eventually be the avenue he used to manipulate the Golgi stain and demonstrate the nervous system is constructed of discrete cells.

04-12-2010 13:06:25


Can you elaborate on the ways Ramon y Cajal's work was elegant? I see its beauty immediately, but how does it embody those notions of simplicity, parsimony, and incisive explanation that I was talking about? Are there other anatomists of the day who took a more "brute force" approach?

Help me see the way you're seeing.


04-12-2010 13:12:28


As a visual response to your post about Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Golgi, I would like to insert a couple of images by Katherine Sherwood. We showed her work at the NAS in an exhibition entitled Golgi’s Door. Not only is her work interesting here because she uses visual references (medical technology – old and new, Golgi, and ancient healing symbols) but her own painting practices were developed as an act of necessity after suffering a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.

Katherine Sherwood, ‘Unfathomable Logic,’ 2003, mixed media on canvas, 62" x 51”

Katherine Sherwood, Golgi's Door, 2007, Mixed media on canvas, 20 x 20 inches


04-12-2010 14:45:04
Hi Nathaniel

I may be busted here. It is entirely possible (probable) that I am not using elegance as you have (i.e. I goofed). Allow me to scramble to explain what I had in mind when I made those comments.

First, because the Golgi stain only stains a handful of select cells (and to my knowledge we still don’t know why that is) what we see in Cajal’s drawing is actually a small subset of the numerous tiny nerve cells packed into the tissue. Prior to his innovations, the use of Golgi stain on nervous tissue produced slides that were just a gray blur (this is the brute force anatomy I was imagining). It was Cajal’s delicate manipulations of tissue and stains and his simplified drawings that I was envisioning as elegant.

Second, at time there were two prevailing theories of how the nervous system was structured. The Reticular Theory held that the nervous system was a network of tubes like the circulatory system. The Neuron Doctrine said the nervous system was comprised of discrete cells. Cajal’s illustrations confirmed the far more parsimonious Neuron Doctrine which more effectively explained how changes like learning arise in the nervous system.

So, that was what I was thinking, but upon reflection it doesn’t qualify as elegant like the Meselson-Stahl experiment does. Looks like I’m talking about elegance I perceive and interpret based on the background I know and not the simple, straightforward visual elegance of the figures you’ve supplied.


04-12-2010 15:12:03

Interesting discussion. I don't have time to elaborate on my contribution here, but this is the cover image of a recent issue of the British journal Architectural Design, which takes this idea of elegance as the theme. Many articles in this issue attempt to adapt this idea from science into architecture, with greater or lesser degree of success. Image below.

A.D. 77:1 (January/Februrary 2007), guest edited by Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle of Contemporary Architecture Practice. Sorry for the blur - it's just a screenshot of the cover taken online.


04-12-2010 15:46:37
Thanks for the clarification. You're not busted at all. I see now how those images relate. They share the notion of parsimony, of trimming down to essences. I love the selective Golgi stain example, particularly. That stretches my notion of elegance.

Do you know of any references to Cajal's work (or Golgi's, for that matter) as "elegant"?

And Christina, thanks much for the journal reference. I look forward to seeing how the architects define elegance and comparing it to scientists' conceptions. Great stuff.

04-12-2010 23:02:58

I haven''t seen anything on Cajal, Golgi and elegance, but I will keep my eyes peeled.

Has anyone written about Thomas Young and elegance? As I was trying to get to sleep (no luck yet), I kept thinking about his double slit experiments. The resulting images are so beautiful and simple and the idea they illustrate so profound that I wondered if they had been considered in this context. I am talking about his work in neurobiology next week and would like to share with the class some of the ideas I've been exposed to in this discussion.

04-13-2010 07:49:46
Beautiful! Sheesh, I've got a graduate degree in neurobiology and I didn't know about Thomas Young. Interesting guy; I wonder if his papers are still extant...

I'm seeing this come back around to visual culture (after this past week, I'm starting to think that *everything* does, eventually): I see how that image of the double-slit experiment conveys a great deal of information--information about *principles*, not just lots of data. That's exactly what I mean by elegance. There's an *eloquence* to this image. If you understand enough about it.

So, since you're talking about this next week and I'm probing the concept of elegance in science: if you have time I'd love for you to post a riff on why that double-slit image is elegant. What does it tell you--how does it speak to you? And how does it use the principles of parsimony, simplicity, grace, and insight to convey it?


04-13-2010 15:43:31
On the subject (rather the personage) of Thomas Young... The famous double-slit studies showed that light behaves as a wave, contrary to the Enlightenment view (no pun intended) that it is corpuscular. What goes around, comes around: In the 20th century, similar double-slit experiments with electron beams showed that particles also behave like waves under some conditions... Hence the 'wave-particle duality' of quantum physics!

Add to Young's repertoire his seminal role in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone... Elegance, indeed!

04-13-2010 17:14:41
Yes, I guess I wasn't clear, or maybe I asked for the wrong thing. I am aware of the double-slit experiment and its fundamental result, but I was hoping for a little exposition from an expert on how that experiment and/or its resultant images embody the principles of elegance. Do you feel comfortable with that?

04-13-2010 18:35:34
Hey Nathaniel-
I’m certainly no expert, but if I am thinking about elegance correctly then I feel this result is elegant because it addresses a big idea with simple materials and design and the resultant image produced makes the answer almost intuitively obvious to anyone who has seen colliding ripples in water. Plus the image responds to manipulation of slit distance in a mathematically predictable fashion (see this web page for a cool demo that allows you to adjust slit length). For me, the result is a visual image composed of simple (beautiful) lines that provide insight (maybe kinda) into the fundamental nature of light.

Of course, before this discussion I really didn’t know much about elegance a formal way of viewing science, so I am trying articulate my clumsy feelings about these ideas. I hope I am not to far off base and I appreciate everyone's indulgence. Whatever the case, I have found this discussion particularly stimulating. I hope I can translate that excitement to my students! The cartoonist in me thinks this might be an interesting thing to address in one of my science comic books sometime…

04-13-2010 21:06:16
Cant imagine discussing Elegance in Science without a mention of Ernst Haeckel

04-14-2010 05:04:08
Very pleased to see the work of Ernst Haeckel highlighted! Elegance and beauty personified. In the modern history of “evolutionary thinking,” in my opinion, he stands out amongst the very few who have integrated scientific principles with a deeply artistic vision of Nature. One of the heroes in the storyline of this symposium, for sure. Haeckel’s accomplishments are manifold. In the post-Darwin age, he produced the most elaborate evolutionary representation of the “tree of life” and pioneered the field of phylogenetics. See The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, by R. J. Richards (2008), and Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, by O. Breidbach (2006).

04-14-2010 08:06:32
On Haeckel:
Beauty, yes.
But elegance?
Would you say his aesthetic was one of stripped-down beauty, economy of line, incisive perception?
(I realize the answer may be in Breidbach--I definitely need to read that. I know Richards' book.)
In a more general sense, I do think that scientific and medical illustration often manifest some of the principles of elegance. Compare an illustration to a photograph: the illustration is often much more informative, precisely because it *leaves out* much of the detail. There's much greater economy, and it stems from the intervention of the artist's mind. She decides what to include, using the efficiency of thought rather than the approach of a photograph, which by "brute-force" includes all the information the camera can gather. I realize this is a simplistic comparison of painting and photography, but I think the general point is valid.

04-14-2010 10:56:48
As to your question of “elegance” in Haeckel’s work, I would say have to say “yes” it applies. Though, I can certainly see how it might not in the sense that you expressed the term. My own view is shaped (perhaps warped) by my training in physics. Alas, there is no universally accepted definition of “elegance” in physics (and I suspect in the world of art as well). I plugged the term “elegance in physics” into Google© just now, and the first item was an online article entitled “What’s wrong with this elegance?” (March 2000) in the journal Physics Today (from the American Institute of Physics) by the physicist David Mermin (Cornell University), based on a lecture he gave on “Elegance in Physics” at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis (see Mermin explores the relativity of this word in the realm of physics. More often than not, the descriptor “elegant” is applied to an encompassing physical theory (though on occasion, as you suggest, it is applied to seminal experiments as well). Quoting the eminent physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Mermin states what I would call the “standard” conception of elegance in physics (referring to a physical theory or physical principle): “harmoniously organizing a domain of science with order, pattern, and coherence.” From this standpoint, much of Haeckel’s work would clearly be “elegant.” One example is his beautifully synthetic conception of the “tree of life” (albeit with some assumptions that we now know to be incorrect), based on the evolutionary thinking of the late 19th century. Another is his “recapitulation theory,” with its proposition that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (which was later disproven). Viewing Haeckel’s work diachronically in its day, the expression “elegant” would be highly appropriate.

Quoting Mermin again, “Elegance in physics is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is in any other field of human endeavor.” Even quantum mechanics (with all of its “fuzziness”), Mermin argues, is “elegant” (and I would agree)…. Nathan, you stated that, “In biology, genetics is more elegant that biochemistry.” I would have to disagree there, as well. I think that both fields have their “elegant” aspects. Initially (just after getting my Ph.D. in biochemistry and for many years thereafter), I did not perceive any such “elegance” in biochemistry. After teaching biochemistry for more years than I’d like to count, I gradually came to see the beauty and elegance of many of the principles that underlie the biochemical character of life. Maybe I just needed the time to get my right brain talking to my left brain?!

I’d be interested in hearing about the relativity of “elegance” in the realm of art from some of the panelists?

04-14-2010 11:22:29
Just to chime in. Elegance has no single definition, is a word that traverses fields and domains, is used in mathematics, fashion, design, aesthetics, has some association with minimalism, efficiency, grace, beauty. It is often deployed in social descriptions, where it is associated with a kind of performance of social class that is not available to members of the working and lower classes, which requires capital and cultural capital.

The larger question for me is the relationship between aesthetics and science. Aesthetics is both a historical construct, a domain of philosophy and cultural commentary which developed mainly out of the writings of Burke and Kant and then spread to the emergent wider fields of philosophy, art commentary and criticism. But is also generalizable, so that we can speak of an Aztec aesthetics or even a NASCAR (racing car) aesthetics. And, in relation to evolution and visual culture, it might be useful to think about an aesthetics of scientific practice, theorizing and presentation which may mobilize evolutionary concepts, including directive streamlining and adaptive efficiency.

04-14-2010 13:01:35
Rick, your response is incredibly helpful. Thanks--you've given me a month or more's worth of leads to track down, and more than that of things to think about.

Your remarks raise the question of different notions or definitions of elegance. I'd assumed physicists had the same definition as biologists, but I see I can't take that for granted.

I expected to get popped by a biochemist for my crack about genetics being more elegant than biochemistry--but not by someone who is also a physicist!

And Mike, yes, you've nicely articulated the underlying idea of interest here. What is the role of aesthetics in science, to what extent can we generalize about it, and what impact does the choice of one aesthetic over another have on scientific knowledge production? A history of the art of science.


04-14-2010 16:59:37

Thanks so much for your inspiring comments and ideas, which have stimulated much thought by me and many other panelists in this symposium.

On another note, I share your fondness of (and affiliation with) D'Arcy Thompson. His On Growth and Form is truly a timeless classic. I have gravitated to his work and his personage so many times over the years. I tend to see in Thompson's work a blend of Goethe, Darwin, and Einstein. Let us note the ongoing 150th anniversary of his birth (see

04-14-2010 17:30:05
My pleasure. And what a fine way to end the symposium. Let us raises our virtual glasses in a toast to D'Arcy Thompson—a true visionary. Cheers!

04-14-2010 18:24:41
Cheers, indeed...


04-15-2010 02:50:04
Thanks, everyone! It was inspiring to follow your adventurous thoughts and gather new resources...

JD, this is a terrific topic. “Elegance” is like the ‘archetypal hero’ in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). It’s that elusive thing we celebrate in our mythologies and real world experiences. We can easily point to elegance, and yet we struggle to describe what exactly we’re pointing to, since it seems to have some hidden characteristics that we can only know through our personal experiences of it. What artifacts or events would you highlight in the History of Visual Culture that you think show the essence of what elegance is…or is not?

Nathaniel, I like your realization about visual culture here ‘(after this past week, I'm starting to think that *everything* does, eventually)…

Essentially, that’s what I meant by “A.r.t.” (All representations of thought). It’s everything we’ve created as an expression-representation of our thoughts, feelings, emotions. It’s the embodiment of visual culture. A.r.t. includes everything from pure math (Algebraic Geometry) to masterful “performance art” in the sciences: I once watched MIT neuroscientist Dr. Ann Graybiel gracefully draw with two hands simultaneously these elegant scientific visualizations of the Basal Ganglia on a blackboard in front of an attentive audience of graduate and medical students. This impressive feat of ambidexterity, couple with her vibrant personality and kinesthetic intelligence, made for an enriched learning experience. It was a memorable example of an ArtScientist teaching a course on “The Human Nervous System.” The fact that this memory is as vivid and fresh today as it was refreshing thirty years ago suggests that elegance and grace leave lasting impressions.

Jay, given your passions for drawing and the fine art of cartooning, I’m sure you’ve filled many treasure chests with elegant cartoons that have inspired your work and research. I’d love to see any of your favorite ones that sum up evolution, and the evolution of elegance. Maybe you have a couple that envision what concepts of elegance may be in a hundred years from now. Are we heading towards a more – or less -- elegant future? What’s the future of elegance look and feel like?

Here are three related/unrelated images showing the “simplexity” of elegance.


04-15-2010 16:39:40
Hi Todd

I do have a few cartoons and comics laying around, but none match the simplicity and power of this one, the first cartoon about evolution drawn by the man himself. Interestingly, it looks far more like a bush than a tree. Charlie was ahead of his time.

Oops, forgot to say thanks to Todd for including a Feynman diagram. When I give talks about using comics to teach science, I have a section that focuses on great visual representations that have helped advance our understanding of the universe and I always show a Feynmen diagram and feebly try to explain it (this is the part of the talk where a mumble really fast). This discussion has given me a lot of material to think about in that regard and I am grateful to JD for starting the discussion and to Nathaniel for propelling it along. For anyone interested in seeing how I tried to deal with explaining the evolution of the eye, below is a link to and excerpt from my book Optical Allusions. Think of it as a nice counterbalance to the concept of elegance...

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