There are few people who evoke as much awe out of intellectuals as Richard Feynman.
He was a physicist by trade, but confining his thinking to one easy label would be doing him an injustice. His mental range was broad and flexible, and he knew how to balance differing viewpoints. Perhaps the best example of this is expressed in his timeless wisdom on beauty:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. And he says, “you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.
First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure…also the processes.
The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting — it means that insects can see the color.
It adds a question — does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are…why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.”1
Beauty in the Form of Essence
We use the word beautiful liberally, but broken down, we only mean a couple of things with it.
The most common association is with scenes that move us. It’s with what we can’t define or capture any other way because this “what” is simply not a thing that’s easily pinned down.
The aesthetic sense of an artist, as Feynman mentions in his monologue, plays into exactly this kind of beauty. It works by understanding wholes. It doesn’t try to reduce things like love or art or meaning into concrete steps because it knows that it would be futile to try to do so.
The only point of defining love or art or meaning is to provide utility; it’s not to capture truth. Once something is beautiful in this sense, that’s the last meaningful word concerning it.
The reason for all this is that such beauty doesn’t hide in a specific function of a thing, but more so, it hides in the essence of the whole thing. As soon as a small part of it is disturbed, as is the case when we try to reduce it down, then the entire thing breaks down.
There is a famous expression in the world of linguistics that states that “the map is not the territory” – that as soon as we describe something, it loses some of its truth in the process.
When it comes to things that are beautiful in their general essence, the only way to get close to them is to develop the aesthetic appreciation of the artist – to reason with the senses.
Sometimes, what is experienced when beauty of this kind presents itself is the last word. We all feel this, of course, but it takes an artistically refined view to fully take it in every time.
The essence is the only full truth. Luckily, however, there is more to the story than just that.
Beauty as a Matter of Detail
Of course, Feynman did have a point in that there is another path leading to a similar end.
Throughout history, many have suggested that what is simple and functional – meaning that when a thing works and it works well – is intimately connected to the aesthetically pleasing.
In mathematics and physics, for example, how beautiful a proof is provides some evidence that it might be right. The fact that it’s elegant is valuable beyond just how it makes us feel.
In the sciences, we don’t work with wholes, and we rarely accept that something should be taken as it is without it needing to be broken down. If we did, progress would be a lot slower.
That said, when good science works, it creates its own kind of beauty. It gives us the power to control a little more of our environment, and it brings us closer to understanding the nature that creates us. It may not explain an essence, but it does uncover a different world.
It’s often forgotten that in the process of understanding, we find ourselves with even more questions. The fact that Feynman knew that the flower evolved to attract insects didn’t just give him an answer, but it opened up a pathway for him to marvel at even more mysteries.
When we dig deep into something that may be explained by our mind and our tools, we gain access to details that work in a way as to create another level of beauty, with their own truth.
Every whole contains a smaller whole within it, so even though reduction doesn’t capture it all, when used humbly, it can give us more dimensions to understand and appreciate.
There is beauty in both knowing and not knowing, and that beauty is available to everyone.
All You Need to Know
Feynman’s intellectual contribution to the world extends far beyond just a brief monologue he happen to utter in an interview, which in turn shows the kind of mind he was working with.
He could see how paradoxes work together, and he showed that when talking about beauty.
The artist and the scientist both see and appreciate the aesthetically profound, but they don’t always fully experience what the other person experiences when they look at something.
The artist is better attuned to use his deeply refined sense intelligence to feel the essence of something that is considered beautiful and that essence can’t be captured any other way.
You can’t always reduce reality down to words and explanations. Rather, you have to feel.
The scientist, however, has the edge when trying to zone in on the details. She is trained to really understand the simplicity and the functionality of something on a deeper level, and that leads to questions, which then leads to mysteries that present their own kind of beauty.
There is much in the world that we do know and can touch and a lot of it contains profundity.
These labels are, of course, generalizations, but they represent archetypes of two different kinds of beauty that exist in the world; kinds that all of us have access to if we know to look.
Although some people will gravitate toward the first at the expense of the second, or vice versa, it isn’t impossible to train yourself to find awe in one as much as you do the other.
The patterns of reality are both complex and simple. Fortunately, we can learn to value both.
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: