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  • The Aesthetics of Elegance and Extravagance in Science and Art
  • Kay Young (bio)

Few pleasures are greater than those of gazing at the stars—both those in the night sky and in our own man-made heavens of the theater and cinema.

—Colette (12)

The Aesthetic Mind

The chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge of the fundamentally elusive nature of knowing the meaning of "Nature":

Whence this elusiveness? It is a reflection on the canvas of the highest scientific achievement of the fact that we can never tell exactly what we mean, or even whether we mean anything at all. Indeterminacy of meaning is not eliminated, but only restricted, when we eventually decide to accept a theory as a true statement of something new about nature. For, while we heavily commit ourselves thereby to a belief concerning certain things, such a belief can have no bearing on reality unless its scope is still left indeterminate."


Polanyi devotes Personal Knowledge to a discussion of what makes reality ineffable and beyond articulation and to a re-imagining of the avowed purpose of scientific inquiry—"to establish complete intellectual control over experience in terms of precise rules which can be formally set out and empirically tested"—to the role personal judgment plays in the application of formulae and ideas to the facts of experience (18-19). What interests me about Polanyi's idea—that scientific knowledge [End Page 149] is personal knowledge in its mix of the pursuit of the ideal of objective verifiability with the real of subjective judgment—is the space that acknowledgment opens for a meeting between the sciences and the arts in their mutual desire to "know" as human beings know. However apparently different their objects of study—the nature of Nature and the nature of experience—both pursuits depend on how human beings can know things, which is to say, through subjective judgment, interpretation, and creativity for their exploration. How is it possible to know and express the nature of the universe or the nature of organic life? However indeterminate answers to those questions may be, Polanyi's consideration of the human role in shaping the search for their answers creates a bridge, I want to suggest, between scientific and artistic inquiry and expression—the imagination. To imagine as a physicist the underlying elegance of the universe or as a biologist the extravagance in organic life invites humans to experience physical reality in metaphor as a means of holding those aesthetic ideas in mind. However difficult the abstractions "elegance" and "extravagance" and however difficult their mathematical symbolizations, elegance and extravagance embodied and represented in human form are natural, easy, and immediately available to our imagining minds. The current research on embodied cognition teaches us that we understand abstractions physically by using the body to concretize ideas. For instance, enacting the future by pointing the body forward—physically looking ahead—enables the mind figuratively to imagine the future because of its embodiment.1 Likewise, to experience Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn on film makes possible both an imagining of human elegance and, I want to suggest, an imagining of the scientific idea of the aesthetic of elegance—as its objective correlative. That we have aesthetic knowledge of human elegance helps make possible imagining the idea of the universe's elegance. T. S. Eliot writes of the concept: "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."2 While Eliot is making a claim about how we can experience emotion in art by way of a formula—"a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events"—my assertion is that that formula applies as well to how works of art—aesthetic objects—can, as analogs, enable us to experience what it means in science to imagine the elegance of the universe or the extravagance of organic life. A mathematical formula or theoretical formula of explanation and...


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pp. 149-170
Launched on MUSE
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