What if beauty, awe, and wonder are an active part of scientific understanding?
What if experiences of beauty, awe, and wonder are crucial for scientists’ well-being?
What if we knew more about how beauty works in our brains, our workplaces, and our lives?
Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan and his team of researchers at The Catholic University of America first explored how beauty motivates scientists, before expanding the conversation to consider how beauty is integral to all forms of work.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Vaidyanathan and his colleagues recently completed a study titled “Work and Wellbeing in Science.” Consisting of nearly 3500 completed surveys and more than 200 in-depth interviews, it was the world’s first large-scale study of the role of beauty in science. The findings showed that beauty matters immensely to scientists and shapes their work profoundly. In particular, the study revealed that things such as symmetry, simplicity, elegance, unity, and satisfaction are often significant to the practice of science and even the well-being of scientists.
This work offers 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.
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.
“Work and Wellbeing in Science” was the first systematic, international research project focused on the role of beauty, awe, and wonder in scientific inquiry. The project entailed representative research on physicists and biologists in the United States, United Kingdom, India, and Italy. Vaidyanathan and his team will examined how:
Like many discoveries, these findings prompted new questions. How might beauty be relevant to other domains such as justice, business, education, and other aspects of life? Could new insights into the drivers of meaningful work be uncovered? Could beauty at work be a powerful antidote to workplace woes such as burnout and attrition?
Worker stress, burnout, and “quiet quitting” are at all-time highs, and A.I. is nibbling at the edges of many jobs. In times like these, a symposium on beauty at work may seem out of sync with the real world. We typically don’t think of work as beautiful. Beauty is a term we usually associate with art, fashion, or appearances. And even there, it’s often seen as outmoded or trivial.
Templeton Religion Trust grant funding, along with other sponsors, supported a two-day symposium in May 2023 to probe the topic of beauty at work. It brought together esteemed speakers and participants from multiple countries who contributed their unique perspectives and expertise in presentations, panels, and informal chats between sessions.
“I find a lot of beauty in bringing people together. So, this conference is one example of that. I like to see connections happen across different fields, different disciplines, people from different backgrounds, academics, and practitioners coming together,” Vaidyanathan explains.
For presenters and participants alike, it was a rare and welcomed opportunity to delve into often-overlooked topics and circle around to questions that are fundamental to being human.
“Attention to beauty and aesthetics is a vehicle to bring people together, to enrich their lives, to give them meaning,” reports one panelist Anjan Chatterjee, professor of neurology, psychology, and architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. “And especially now, given the current political, social, and cultural environment, maybe it’s as important as it ever has been.”
Funding from Templeton Religion Trust is also supporting the Beauty at Work podcast, where Vaidyanathan interviews experts about the role of beauty in science and other professional domains.