I think we’ve all heard or said this before: “Don’t tell me how it works–you’ll ruin the beauty of it.” As if knowing what causes a phenomenon will suddenly make it dull and boring. Yeah, maybe if the person telling you about it is boring. It’s almost maddening how dull scientific papers are, how science teachers often suffer from the “well actually…” syndrome, or how uninterestingly science can be presented to a general audience by scientists who decide that communication is a skill best left to the journalists (God forbid they should have any kind of similarities to the humanities). But science is not boring and it is certainly not ugly.
Have you ever looked up at a dark night sky? Seen the beauty of the thousands of suns beaming their energy at you from unimaginable distances, or the glow of the Milky Way in all of its nebular glory, a dazzling palette of color streaking across the canvas of the heavens? It’s quite a sight to behold. The starlight entering your eyes traveled distances so unbelievably far that for all its incredible speed, the light took years, decades, centuries, or even millennia to reach your retina. When you gaze at these brilliant specks, you see light that was emitted when your parents were born, your grandparents, your ancestors going back into the bygone eras. These rays of light were partly emitted during the fall of Rome, the days of Pythagoras, the building of the Pyramids of Egypt. Some of the fuzzy galaxies, incredibly small to your naked eye but incredibly large in reality, emitted the light you see at the time when dinosaurs once roamed the Earth. Despite all of our greatest telescopic technologies, we cannot glimpse the stars (other than a small few) as anything more than points of light. But they are so much more—Betelgeuse in its red fire is so large that if you plopped it where our Sun sits, it would fill up the entire space in our solar system out to Jupiter, engulfing the asteroid belt and all the inner planets. Its “surface temperature”, despite its enormous brightness and size, is cooler than that of our timid Sun, and so it appears red. Other stars however, are much hotter, and so they appear blue. When I look up at the Milky Way, I see much more than just colorful gaseous puffs—I see stellar nurseries, clusters of stars, gas and dust, and even cosmic cemeteries. But knowing these wondrous things ruins the beauty of the night sky?
How about a rainbow? Surely you would agree that rainbows are some of the most impressive sights to behold. But why is that? After it rains, there remains a lot of water droplets suspended in the air. These droplets reflect and refract sunlight at a sweeping number of angles, dispersing the white light into its many colors and forming a rainbow. Sometimes you get multiple reflections, and can get double rainbows. Because it’s all about light bouncing around at angles into our eyes, rainbows aren’t physical objects, so you can’t approach a rainbow, or follow it to the end and find a pot of gold. But you can see some majestic displays of every color. Does understanding optics really take away from the wonder of a rainbow?
As children we approach the world with a natural ignorance and wonder, stemming from an appreciation for the beauty of things around us and the desire to learn all about what makes the magic we perceive. But then for some reason, as we age, we tend to lose that second essence of nature—we decide that ignorance is better, that it no longer matters why something is so beautiful, only that it is. We decide, having perhaps grown spiteful of our knowledge of adult problems and frustrations (i.e. the end of youthful bliss), that further illumination would be a fate worse than the blind acceptance of all that is seen by our eyes.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can put an end to this myth, right here and now. Science is not ruining the beauty of nature—it is the beauty of nature. Things you experienced as a child are just as amazing as they were when you were five years old. Rainbows, night skies, the vortex that forms during the draining of a bathtub, the uniqueness of snowflakes as they fall to their eventual melting, the green patina engulfing the once-copper-brown Statue of Liberty, the fish fossils found at the tops of mountains, all of it…the amazement found in the world we inhabit is derived not only from the external beauty, but from the intrinsic, wonderful “magic” of the science underlying all of nature. And that, my friends, is beautiful.