Monday, 3 January 2011

Scientific aesthetics

As a modeller, numbers are (largely) the be-all and end-all of my scientific life, and I spend much of my time trying to interpret the quantitative output from the various models that I use. A big part of this (and the root of my love for Matlab) is making figures and diagrams to tease out what's going on, so I've been watching the Beeb's (recently finished) series, The Beauty of Diagrams, with great interest.

In its six programme run, it's taken in: da Vinci's Vetruvian Man; Copernicus' heliocentric solar system; Newton's prism refraction; Nightingale's polar area mortality charts; Watson and Crick's DNA helix; and the Pioneer 10 plaque designed by Sagan and Drake. Intriguingly, the latter two diagrams were both drawn by the wives of male scientists involved.

Anyway, on the whole the series was quite a gem. I'm not usually Marcus du Sautoy's biggest fan, his mathematical programmes being a little too dry for me, but he (or perhaps the series' writers) did a good job picking the diagrams and fleshing out both their immediate histories and why they were so significant. It did come a little unstuck in the DNA programme, which dealt rather too much with non-scientific appropriations of the double helix, but overall was an excellent idea, well-executed.

My favourite, and the most "outlying" of the diagrams, was the final programme on the Pioneer 10 plaque. While the other diagrams were largely aimed at exposition of some novel scientific idea (though da Vinci's Vetruvian Man has an additional aesthetic appeal), the diagram on the plaque serves a very different purpose. It does, to be sure, communicate some scientific ideas, but only enough to convey a few practical details about humans and the location of Earth in the galaxy.

Instead, journeying on a one-way ticket out of the solar system, and destined to voyage for an almost unimaginable period of time before it reaches even the next star, the plaque is really more about putting down a marker for humanity, "We were here!". As such, it touches on things more inspirational, taps into deeper considerations of how we view our place in the universe, and seems an altogether more hopeful scientific diagram. Not the kind that plankton modelling is ever likely to require, but something very close to the heart, rather than the mind, of scientific endeavour (if one can get all pretentious about it).

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