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What Role Does Beauty Have in the World of Science?

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Beauty might not necessarily be the first word that comes to mind when we think about research, but as Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan’s work highlights, it plays a crucial role in the flourishing of scientists.

Vaidyanathan is an associate professor, chair of the department of sociology and director of the Institutional Flourishing Lab at The Catholic University of America. His research examines the cultural dimensions of religious, commercial and scientific institutions. Currently, Vaidyanathan leads Work and Well-Being in Science, the largest cross-national study investigating factors that affect the wellbeing of scientists.

While there isn’t an official term that describes this research field just yet, Vaidyanathan feels inclined to call it “aesthetics in science”: “There is a very recent and growing body of work in philosophy and sociology that looks at how aesthetic factors (e.g., beauty, awe, wonder and other aesthetic emotions) shape scientists and the practice of science,” he says.

In this interview with Technology Networks, Vaidyanathan describes what is meant by “beauty” in science, how it can be studied and the implications of such research.

Molly Campbell (MC): Can you talk about how you became interested in this research field?

Brandon Vaidyanathan (BV): I was drawn to research this area because in qualitative research interviews with scientists for a previous project, our team was surprised to hear them regularly bring up “beauty” as a key motivating factor. There is also new research that is raising concerns about how the pursuit of “mathematical beauty” in physics can be a source of bias that is derailing scientific progress.

MC: Can you talk about the current research landscape exploring the role of beauty in science, and what actionable insights it offers?

BV: My project Work and Well-Being in Science is the largest international study on the aesthetics of science. We surveyed several thousand scientists in 4 countries and also conducted 200+ in-depth interviews.

One key insight is that aesthetic factors are a major source of motivation for scientists to pursue their careers in the first place.

Our team finds that most scientists see science as an aesthetic quest – a quest for the “beauty of understanding,” which is the pleasure gained from discovering the hidden order or inner logic underlying phenomena they study.

We also find that aesthetic experience is very strongly associated with well-being among scientists. This is especially important in light of considerable research pointing to a mental health crisis in science. Our work underscores the need to preserve the intrinsic motivations and joys of doing science and address the obstacles to it (such as institutional pressures and toxic leadership) that scientists face.

Besides this project, the work of Cambridge philosopher Dr. Milena Ivanova highlights the importance of aesthetics in scientific experiments in her books and articles. Prominent scientists such as Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek and Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins have written books about aesthetics in science (A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design and Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder). Sabine Hossenfelder published a bestselling book on the negative aspects of mathematical beauty in physics.

MC: Can it be challenging to explore the role of beauty in science?

BV: The challenge to survey research in this area is that it is increasingly difficult to get a high response rate for surveys – even with financial incentives in place, most people don’t want to take a survey, and mail servers often filter out survey invitations as spam. It is also difficult to get elite populations (e.g., scientists) to participate in research. We think increased dissemination of our results and awareness of our findings can help motivate scientists to continue participating in research so we can learn how to improve well-being in the scientific community.

MC: Are there any specific research methodologies that you view as integral to the progression of this field?

BV: So far the work that has been done is either philosophical, historical or sociological (through interviews and surveys). Longitudinal survey work would be important in order to assess causal mechanisms. More experimental and even neuropsychological work could also benefit this field in helping us understand how aesthetic experiences affect scientists and their relevance to scientific practice.

Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan was speaking with Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan is associate professor, chair of the Department of Sociology and director of the Institutional Flourishing Lab at The Catholic University of America. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia and HEC Montreal respectively, and a PhD in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Vaidyanathan's research examines the cultural dimensions of religious, commercial and scientific institutions, and has been widely published in peer-reviewed journals. His current research examines the role of beauty in science and other domains of work.