Richard Feynman on flowers, artists and scientists

A clematis flower

Can scientists appreciate beauty? Over 30 years ago, physicist Richard Feynman claimed that a scientist can see more beauty in a flower than an artist. Since then, science and art have combined to bring the meaning of his words to life.

How science adds to the excitement, mystery and awe of a flower

Start Quote

I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.”

End Quote Richard Feynman Physicist

In the video, Feynman tells an anecdote about a friend who said that "a scientist takes [a flower] all apart and it becomes a dull thing." Was Feynman right when he argued instead that science only adds to the "excitement, mystery and awe" of the beauty of a flower?

Knowledge and beauty

Rosie Sanders, an artist with a particular interest in flowers, agrees with Feynman: "I don't believe that knowledge detracts from beauty."

"Beauty [is] a shortcut word that we all fall back on to express our response to things we find visually stimulating," says Rob Kesseler, a visual artist and Professor of Ceramic Art & Design at the University of the Arts, London. As beauty is not a definitive term, he says this can make discussions about beauty difficult.

So does Kesseler agree that science reduces art to a dull thing? "No, certainly not. Science reveals new knowledge and insights, it is down to the viewer to use or ignore what is presented."

Transition - flower painting by Rosie Sanders Rosie Sanders' work is influenced by macro (extreme close-up) photography.
Microscopy

Since Feynman was interviewed in 1981, the field of digital photomicrography has flourished.

The "beauty at smaller dimensions" that Feynman spoke about has now been illuminated by high magnification images which enhance both scientific understanding and are often works of art in themselves.

Such images and techniques have provided a rich source of inspiration for artists.

Sanders says: "I have always loved the minutiae of things. Macro photography has inspired my work."

Anita Nowinska, a contemporary artist who often paints flowers, says: "I work frequently at macro level and have used microscopes to look at natural forms."

Nowinska says she would love to have access to imaging equipment to see even more.

Two-way street

Richard Feynman - 1918 to 1988

Richard Feynman

A well-illustrated idea can make a difficult scientific concept accessible, says Nowinska. "Look at Darwin. He saw the tiny details and differences in creatures, and documented them through beautiful artistic renditions."

Some forms of science and art, says Kesseler "are more accessible than others. Some are accessible to very few."

This is something that has been recognised by scientists with whom he has collaborated.

Kesseler says an artist can "engage [scientists] in discussions and cause them to reflect on their visual awareness of the material they were working with" and gain insight into "the world outside the lab".

For this reason, The Wellcome Trust has set up an art award for imaginative and experimental arts projects that explore biomedical science.

Inspiring art

"Aesthetically I am inspired and excited by the beauty and detail in a flower and want to capture that in my work," says Nowinska, "but I have always been fascinated by science - and Biology came a close second as a passion after my art".

Petal at 766x magnifcation A petal at 766x magnification taken using a scanning electron microscope.

"To me, the sexuality and sensuality of a flower I portray in a painting is a direct celebration of the wonder of how it evolved; the purpose of the stamen, pollen, colour and petals."

Kesseler shares this enthusiasm, saying: "artists can be inspired by anything and everything, from the mundane to the momentous." He himself was inspired "by a dandelion seed collected from Mendel's garden where he discovered the laws of Mendelian inheritance."

Professor Kesseler worked with Kew Royal Botanic Garden and the Millennium Seed Bank to explore pollen, seeds and other plant material using scanning electron microscopy.

"I didn't just want to dip into the scientists' goody bag and appropriate their images. I need to have full control of the processes from a scientifically informed position."

Artwork of scabiosa cretica Scabious seed micrograph taken in black and white then hand coloured by Rob Kesseler.

The end result was a series of award-winning books which combined scientific techniques with artistic enhancements, adding both visual impact and clarity to the scientific points of interest for lay viewers.

For example, hand colouring the images means different functions or sections can be emphasised. Kesseler produces art from photographs taken at these dimensions.

Feynman's anecdote itself inspired artist Fraser Davison to produce an animated ode to a flower.

Meddling intellect

The poet William Wordsworth seems to disagree with the argument that a scientific understanding increases our appreciation of nature in his poem The Tables Turned, in which he writes:

"Sweet is the lore which nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things;

We murder to dissect."

Sunflower Sunflower seed spirals follow a mathematical sequence

However, Wordsworth then urges his readers to "let Nature be your teacher" and leave dry books behind.

This agrees with Feynman's idea that science fosters a greater sense of "excitement, mystery and awe" towards nature.

Curiosity

Scientists and artists both explore new concepts, techniques and materials. What links them is their curiosity and interest in the natural world.

Rosie Sanders believes that from childhood the average person "is fascinated by things in nature and how they work and evolve, are born and die and reproduce."

"All that acquired knowledge helps us to appreciate the beauty of things."

Anita Nowinska adds, "What artists and scientists have in common is the ability to see what most people don't."

Using this ability, "Scientists document and explore; artists capture and immortalise."

Find out more about the life and work of Richard Feynman in a one hour documentary The Fantastic Mr Feynman available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 19th May.

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