Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Science, Art and Beauty

The Courage it Takes to Be Human

Our experience of beauty is not an “also ran” on the list of things that make us human. I took on that question in a TEDx talk I hope you might enjoy.

One of the commandments for TED speakers is “Thou shalt not trot out thy usual schtick.” There was little danger of that when I was asked to speak at a TEDx event dedicated to “Lifeblood: That Which Sustains Us.” I’m a hard scientist who helps people look at an often unforgiving reality without blinking. I seldom find myself on stage following a troupe of belly dancers!

Sustaining 101

So where to start? Webster defines “sustain” as “cause to continue or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.” Taking that definition in the most literal way possible, “that which sustains us” boils down to three fundamental imperatives. Thou shalt eat. Thou shalt avoid being eaten. And thou shalt reproduce. Omar Khayyam put it a bit more poetically; “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”

Poetry or not and all kidding aside, had our ancestors failed at these we wouldn’t be here talking about it. Of course, there were lots of other things out there doing their damnedest to “sustain” too. A lot of the competition was bigger, meaner, faster and in possession of sharper claws than were we.

How did humans climb to the top of the evolutionary ladder? Inventing beauty had a lot to do with it.

So how did we end up on top of the heap? Maybe they had bigger teeth, but we had bigger brains. While they were busy reacting to the world, we were busy understanding the world.

Beauty is serious business

Our nature is to seek out and even invent patterns in the midst of the complexity of the world. We can’t help it!

Like all animals, humans have a drive to reproduce. We have a drive to eat. But we are also driven to find pattern and meaning in what we see. That drive defines us as a species. It is the source of our power to shape the world to our own ends. It is the key to our success.

It would be nice to have a word that captures all of this; a word that sums up what we experience when we see the world not as chaos but as order. Actually we already have a word like that. We call that experience “beauty.”

A thoughtful scientist might describe the process of science as finding meaningful patterns in the world and communicating those patterns so that others can see their significance as well. Of course a thoughtful artist might describe her own calling in exactly the same way! Both the artist and the scientist seek beauty. Both scratch the same itch.

It’s not always in the eye of the beholder

Music, science, art, politics, economics, commerce; as with all that makes up our culture, each of these has its own beauty. More correctly, all of these are expressions of what someone sees as beautiful. But not all beauty is the same.

Sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the expression says. Which is the more beautiful painting? What do you value most in life? What does success mean to you? Your answers to those questions are yours and yours alone.

But some beauty is different. Will this airplane fly? Will this product sell? How best to treat this disease? Are human’s changing the climate? The world is as the world is, and the world will do what the world will do. Your opinions don’t change the answers to these questions. If you pretend that they do you could be in for a world of hurt.

Reliable answers to questions like these don’t come from clinging blindly to what worked last year or what we want to be true. Reliable answers to questions of this sort come instead from challenging everything, then holding on only to ideas that can stand the heat. In a rapidly changing world that takes courage. There is beauty in that, too.

I hope that you enjoy the talk!


Science, Art and Beauty ^ The Courage it Takes to Be Human  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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