Beauty in Science

Part of a continuing series on how to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War. 

Like Beauty in Sport, Beauty in Science also proves easier to define and understand than Beauty in Art, particularly with an example of the contrast between an “ugly” theory and a “beautiful” theory. Towards this end, consider the historical attempt to understand the motion of the planets in the nighttime sky. For centuries, the dominant theory in the West was that all the planets orbited around the Earth in concentric circles. A elegant idea in conception, it turned into a very ugly theory when put into practice, for the simple reason that it did not match well with the observed data. When actual observations of the night sky were compared with the geocentric model, it seemed as though sometimes the planets were reversing direction and moving backwards, speeding up and slowing down, or simply not appearing where they were supposed to. So in order to keep the theory alive, the idea of “epicycles” was invented, smaller circular paths that interacted with the larger orbits and caused all the observed eccentricities.

What made this an ugly theory was partly that it was hugely complex, hard to understand, and frequently inaccurate, and partly that it was filled to the brim with what is often called “fudge factor,” numbers and calculations added for the specific purpose of getting the data to come out right, but without any larger justification or explanation. In the case of the geocentric theory, there was no explanation for the epicycles, or how big they were, or how many of them there might be. They were added solely to make the larger theory less flagrantly wrong all the time.

In contrast, the eventual heliocentric theory of the solar system was a very beautiful theory. It is simple, and easy to understand. It can be explaned in a single sentence, which even most non-scientists can understand: “All planets move around the sun (in orbits that are shaped like ellipses with the sun at one focal point).” It matches all the observed data with a high degree of accuracy, and without any need for “fudge factors.” In addition, it makes clear previously unsuspected new insights. For instance, the variability in the speed of the planets is completely predictable from the observation that a line between the sun and any given planet will trace out an equal area in an equal amount of time for any portion of its orbit, a result that could never have been suspected in the “ugly” theory.

If we generalize the scientific aesthetic in the same way that we generalized the athletic aesthetic, we derive something like this: Beauty in Science is a theory that brings order, simplicity, new insights and consistently correct predictions to a complex, challenging, and previously impossible to understand dataset, and that does so without either manipulating the original data or adding unexplained, unmotivated factors into the calculations to force them to match the observations.

Next Week: Back to Art

Beauty in Sport

To recapitulate our project, the goal is to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War.  But is there a way to do this without just creating some Frankenstein-like assemblage with none of the strengths of any of its parents?

Instead of cobbling this institutions together, maybe a better approach is to look at ways they already reflect each other at a deeper level.  For that reason, this week’s post has the unusual title of “Beauty in Sport”.

The aesthetic of Sport is found in its purest form not in any hybrid “pretty” sport, but rather in the most “ugly” and bare-knuckled of gladitorial athletic contests –sports such as American football. Beauty in football, for example, is an underrated player on an outmatched team scoring the winning touchdown in the game’s final seconds seemingly without effort, despite the full overwhelming force of the opposing team. That is the moment that football fans live for –at least when it ends in their team’s favor. It is an easy scenario to grasp, and can be generalized as follows: Beauty in Sport is a clean, graceful victory over visibly overwhelming odds.

Given that the goal in every sporting event is a clean victory (meaning one where no one cheats, and everyone plays their best) , the real variable factor here is the level of difficulty, as intensified by things such as being outmatched, losing a key player, or being in the final seconds of the game, and as existing in dynamic tension with the grace of the triumph. A good real-life example is provided by Kerri Strug’s memorable last performance in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. As an Olympic competition, the level of challenge was already at a peak, but it increased by several orders of magnitude when Strug injured her leg shortly before her final vault. Normally she would have dropped out of contention in favor of letting her leg heal, but her teammates were relying on her final vault to secure their shot at winning the gold medals. When she soldiered through to complete a nearly flawless vault, and then subsequently collapsed in pain, the contrast between the grace of her performance and the obvious difficulty of having achieved it on a bad leg combined to create a moment of memorable athletic Beauty.

Next Week: Beauty in Science

Art + Sport = ?

Sport, Science and Art each have strengths, but none of them has proven capable of replacing War in its natural form. It seems plausible, however, that one could create a true War-class ECS by synthesizing the three together. In other words, we might be able to reverse-engineer the system we need from the parts that we already have.

A good place to start is with some combination of Art and Sport. In imitation of Sport, we need a hierarchical competition format that will provide a consistently high level of challenge to a wide range of participants. In imitation of Art, we need an aesthetics-based approach that will remove our system from the realm of physical dominance and prevent it from being weaponized. As it happens, there are several notable hybrids that already match this recipe. One of the most prominent is the Olympic-class sport of figure skating, which is judged equally on athletic talent and aesthetics. Other Olympic sports where aesthetics play at least some role in the judging include gynmastics, skateboarding and diving.

There are also a number of hybrids on the other side of the Art/Sport line. One of the most influential is “slam poetry,” a dynamic spoken-word art form centered around competitions judged with Olympic-style scores by an ad hoc panel drawn from the audience. Another is the California-based phenomenon of “clown” or “crump dancing” (as chronicled in the documentary Rize) which similarly takes on aspects of Sport while retaining a focus on aesthetics. In addition, talent competitions ranging from the elite Van Cliburn piano competition to televised reality competitions such as American Idol also meld together these basic ingredients of competition and aesthetics.

When, however, it comes time to mix in our third ingredient, the objective legitimacy of Science, none of these hybrids proves suitable. The problem is that aesthetic judgments are generally considered irreduceably subjective, matters of individual taste that can neither be quantified nor made universal. The problem is made especially acute by the fact that no widely endorsed definition of aesthetic value in Art exists. If a thing cannot be defined, it cannot be measured, and if it cannot be consistently measured it might as well, from a scientific point of view, not even exist.

NEXT WEEK: Quantifying the unquantifiable.