24 Jul 2010

How a scientist sees the world

Posted by jofr

Richard Feynman said that science does not take away the beauty of nature, whether you consider stars..

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere”. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it.

..or flowers:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. […] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

I think he is right, although you might never again see things in quite the same way. For example once you understand how fractals work, you start to see fractal patterns everywhere. On the Abstruse Goose blog, one can find a nice picture how a scientist sees the world:

On the top left one we see Maxwell equations and the laws of gravity, in the trees the chemical equation for Photosynthesis is visible, Schrödinger equation can be seen at the horizon, in the river Navier–Stokes equations appear, and on the bottom right there is a IFS for a fractal “fern”.

If we look behind the scenes, there are many fascinating structures and processes which we can not see. The world of (Bio-)Chemistry for example contains countless complex objects, which we are only beginning to understand. While you are reading this, you might drink a cup of coffee which contains Caffeine. Did you know that Caffeine is in fact a small molecule which has a complex structure? The chemical name is trimethylxanthine. In your brain it functions as a adenosine impersonator. Chlorophyll, the green pigment found in all plants and algae which makes Photosynthesis possible, is even more complex and resembles Hemoglobin, the oxygen-transport protein in red blood cells (although it contains iron instead of magnesium ions). These complex structures are completely invisible to us, we can only recognize the effects.

The world of (Particle-) Physics contains many complex objects, too. The Standard Model of Particle Physics says that the worlds consists of many types of fermions, bosons, quarks and leptons which interact in complex ways. The following impressive chart of the CPEP describes the standard model of the fundamental particles and interactions. It is hard to believe that all these interactions and processes between tiny particles really go on behind the scenes. Science says they do..

If you think about it, it is just incredible what is going on in a single moment at a single place. On a higher level, these subatomic particles form whole galaxies of particles, the atoms themselves, which obey the Schrödinger equation and the laws of Quantum Mechanics. They also form the electromagnetic waves which are described by Maxwell equations. It is marvelous what is going on if we just say “Hello” in our mobile phone..

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