Can aesthetics contribute to chemistry?

Elephant toothpaste

Source: © Science Photo Library

Elephant’s toothpaste is an impressive-looking experiment – but aesthetics have a more central role to play in chemistry too

Chemistry is one of the most aesthetically expressive scientific practices. One need not study it at an advanced level to experience the beauty of coloured fire or the surprise when producing ‘elephant’s toothpaste’; to play with colour changes in redox reactions or create carbon snakes. There are many lists of favourite experiments online, and passionate debates among chemistry enthusiasts about which experiments are the most cool or beautiful. 

While delving into the beauty of chemistry may be a fun hobby or a valuable pedagogical tool for many practitioners of chemistry, some philosophers make the study of beauty in science central to their work . Extensive research has been done on the connection between theory, truth and aesthetic values. However, lately there is another context in which aesthetics is also studied: that of scientific experimentation. 

Aesthetic values can be found in modern science ever since its emergence during the Scientific Revolution. In the 17th and 18th centuries, institutions collectively studied natural phenomena and enhanced the role of experimental analysis in understanding nature. In this context, scientific experiments – as conducted at the Royal Society, for example – became public events that were performed in front of an audience. They could be characterised as artistic performances that aimed at creating awe and admiration.1

Among those who apparently viewed the study of nature as an aesthetic project was the father of modern chemistry, Robert Boyle.2 The desire to perform beautiful experiments was motivated by the belief that beautiful experiments reflect the beauty of nature itself. As philosophers Glenn Parsons and Alexander Rueger put it, the ‘experiment is like a frame for the display of a picture – nature’s operations; and although the frame itself can be beautiful (as an artefact), it is not the focus of the spectator’s attention’.3

In the 19th century, the relationship between aesthetics and scientific experimentation shifted. According to Parsons and Rueger, an experiment was deemed beautiful in its own right based on how it was designed or on the results it produced. In this context, philosopher Milena Ivanova identifies two main senses in which an experiment is now deemed beautiful.

First, beauty is found in the design of an experiment; namely, in the originality or elegance of its underlying idea, in the creativity of the experimenter, the simplicity of its setup, or in the innovative use of materials. As chemistry Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach once noted: ‘Classical musicians especially admire Mozart for his skill in making optimal use of minimal material. Likewise in scientific experiments’.4

Second, an experiment may also be characterised as beautiful based on the quality and function of the results it produces. As Ivanova states, ‘we often find scientists arguing that the results were “clean” and “solid”,’ which is taken to mean that ‘the experiment is seen to be an exemplar of a crucial experiment, confirming one hypothesis while disconfirming its competitors’.5

Science maintains a classical perception of what is beautiful

While all this is quite intriguing, it does not explain what value aesthetics has for scientific progress. Science is considered an objective enterprise that is based on the rational analysis of empirical evidence. Yet aesthetics seems to represent something fluid and subjective. What is deemed beautiful shifts not just from person to person, but across times and cultures. So can we expect aesthetic considerations to successfully guide us in evaluating or even designing a scientific experiment?

The answer to this question may come as a surprise. While in fields such as art, aesthetic values can be quite unstable, the philosopher Peter Kivy claims that scientists are much more traditional in what they appreciate aesthetically.6 That means that science maintains a classical perception of what is beautiful that does not seem to have particularly changed throughout its historical development. Ivanova explains this apparent stability by the fact that we are cognitively preconditioned to prefer certain aesthetic values (such as simplicity and unity) over others.7 If this is indeed the case, then the role of aesthetic values in scientific experimentation may be more substantial than what one might think.

Evaluating the role of beauty in science is one of the most exciting emerging fields in philosophy, and one that can benefit immensely from the study of chemistry’s rich repository of experiments and apparatus, such as the microscope. Not only will this increase our aesthetic appreciation of chemistry, but also our understanding of the aims and methodology of chemical practice.