Beauty is in the eye of the… scientist?

Here’s a little something I wrote for Guardian-Wellcome science writing prize this year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t shortlisted but here is my article – I hope you enjoy it!

Many people work tirelessly each day to make one of the most vital products available to mankind.  Their job is to carefully stir water into a mixture of complex compounds. As the water molecules rush to surround the complex compounds, they begin to react. Ever in search of stability each atom swirling around in the liquid seeks out tiny nuggets of negative charge to share or to steal, or shed some of their own.

With increasing speed, the compounds begin to incorporate the water molecules. In doing so they cast out negatively charged oxygen molecules, each clinging to a single hydrogen molecule, into the liquid. This makes the solution highly corrosive. However, when this dangerous solution is laden with as many of these molecules as it can, something remarkable happens. Out of these extreme conditions new, solid compounds start to materialise and crystals begin to form. Layer upon layer of solid material grows, and encase inert, un-reactive lumps of grey material.

The incorporation of water, which kick-starts the rearrangement of atoms into precise new structures creates a solid with unbelievable strength. But what is this intricate and vital material?  This life changing solid which has become essential to our everyday lives?

The answer is concrete. Few of us give this remarkable material a second glance, possibly other than to comment on its lack of aesthetic appeal. But there is an inherent beauty in this grey lump of  solid. Few people appreciate this, and of these few, many are the scientists that study it.

Scientific knowledge can alter the way someone views the world. Richard Feynman, appearing on BBC’s Horizon in 1981, referred to a conversation he had with a friend:

“[My friend will] hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is.” And I agree. And he says that, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is. But you, as a scientist, take this all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty.

[The] beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. At the same time, I see much more about the flower then he sees.  I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions which also have a beauty. Science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Knowing the science behind every facet of how the world is put together – and how it works – won’t suddenly make it an overwhelmingly stunning place, but it will change the way that you look at it, possibly even for the better. Understanding that when people walk they are basically just falling over repeatedly might make you giggle, appreciating the covalent bonds that are formed and destroyed during respiration – so that you’re body has enough energy to move – might make you marvel at how incredible your own physiology is, and knowing the intricate nature of concrete might make you look at a building (or those building it) in a new light.

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