What if beauty, awe, and wonder are an active part of scientific understanding? What if experience of beauty, awe, and wonder are crucial for scientists’ well-being? Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan and his team of researchers at The Catholic University of America are exploring these questions.
This planning grant is the first step towards a proposed, large-scale, international project to research the aesthetic dimensions of science. The aim is to improve the ability to measure aesthetic factors that may shape the practice of science and influence the well-being of scientists. This work will offer a deeper understanding of the motivations for scientific work, new insights into key drivers of scientific inquiry, and the factors that shape job satisfaction, retention, and burnout in career paths of scientists. The research may even help to dispel popular misconceptions of scientists as being strictly analytical and calculating reductionists.
There is currently no empirical foundation for understanding the role and significance of the aesthetic dimensions of science, such as beauty, awe, and wonder, in the work and lives of scientists. Little is known about how scientists in different disciplines and cultural contexts might understand and experience aesthetic dimensions in various ways.
Prominent individual scientists have shared accounts of how these aesthetic elements have influenced aspects of their work including motivation, engagement, and passion. Recently some have also criticized aesthetic factors as a source of cognitive bias in science. How pervasive are such influences in the scientific community? And to what extent do aesthetics help or hinder scientific progress?
Scientists base their careers on their ability to apply scientific methods, rational judgments, and perceptual skills to answer questions and test hypotheses. Beneath these rational processes there also exists a web of perceptions, inarticulate skills, and approaches that are essential to theorizing. Criteria such as symmetry, simplicity, elegance, unity, and satisfaction may not be susceptible to logical scrutiny but likely form a significant component to our theorizing.
This is the first systematic, international research project focused on the role of beauty, awe, and wonder in scientific inquiry. The project will entail representative research on physicists and biologists in the United States, United Kingdom, India, and Italy, including 6,000 surveys and 200 in-depth interviews. Vaidyanathan and his team will examine how: