Nepal | September 29, 2020

Science loves a pretty face: How close is theory to the truth?

Rajgopal Nidamboor
Share Now:

In addition to the art of decorating and sculpting the human form — many of which have a clear, aesthetic rationale — most societies have developed a vast range of art forms for movement, training and performance

Science has, for long, used empirical data to estimate how close a theory is to the truth. But, not all theories, however, can be evaluated in that manner — for a plethora of reasons. In areas, such as string theory, cosmology and evolutionary biology, for instance, arriving at how close a theory is to the truth is next to impossible.

On the contrary, most of us would be able to assess how beautiful a given object is because the features of the object are immediately apparent, or accessible. This is, in other words, a straightforward constituent required to scrutinise the given object with aesthetic judgment: one that delivers a conclusive ruling on its beauty. Not so simple, though. Because, such a descent would make, or compel, us to wonder whether we’d all use our aesthetic canvas at the proverbial drop of a thought: to ascertain how imminent a scientific theory is to the truth.

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

It is not that all scientific revolution theories have had a surge of aesthetically innovative strokes. Most scientists, for instance, called several old and new theories — when first put forward — ‘ugly.’ Many astronomers, who were contemporaries, regarded Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motions as unattractive. Because, Kepler’s ‘blueprint’ portrayed planetary orbits as ellipses — not a combination of circles. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was, likewise, disliked by many of his contemporaries as being aesthetically unacceptable — for postulating action at a distance.

In recent times, quantum electrodynamics was regarded as repulsive for relying on non-standard mathematical operations for re-normalisation. The list is endless. Yet, they all came gradually to be declared as aesthetically appealing. As the philosopher-scientist, Francis Bacon, exemplified, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The credo holds good for health and medicine, too. The notion of aesthetic health, as Alexander Edmonds, a medical anthropologist, equates in his sublime essay, Beauty & Health: Anthropological Perspectives, is quite explicit in a practice, such as plastic surgery, although there are other examples where aesthetics and health are entwined. Beauty, he emphasises, is not often a static quality, but is revealed in motion: a smile, a toss of the head, displays of grace and agility.

Body modification practices, likewise, paint, cut and puncture the skin, crush, file, mould and even remove bones. Yet in addition to the art of decorating and sculpting the human form — many of which have a clear, aesthetic rationale — most societies have developed a vast range of art forms for movement, training and performance. He adds, “The body in motion — walking, dancing, loving, playing, competing, or fighting — is not only social but often beautiful. Here again though, health can exist in tension with beauty.”

This isn’t all — as medical researchers E. Materia and G. Baglioargue vis-à-vis the impression of truth that medicine refers, or relates to. Evidence-based medicine (EBM), they articulate, is rooted in scientific truth. To explain the meaning and also trace the evolution of scientific truth the duo studied the outlines of the history of scientific revolution and the parable of modernity, up to the arrival of pragmatism and hermeneutics — the philosophy and methodology of textual interpretation. It is from here, they add, the concept of truth becomes discomfiting just as the momentum leans towards the integration of different points of view. The fuzzy set theory, likewise, for the definition of disease, as well as the shift from disease to syndrome — which has operational relevance for geriatrics, a specialty that focuses on healthcare of the elderly — seems to, just as well, refer to a more complex perspective on knowledge, although it is not as well defined as nosology, or the study of disease, in use.

They explain, “Supporters of narrative medicine seek the truth in the interpretation of the patients’ stories, and take advantage of the medical humanities to find the truth in words, feelings and contact with patients. Hence, it is possible to mention the ‘parrhesia,’ or free speech, which is the frank communication espoused by Stoicism and Epicureanism, or high living, a technical and ethical quality, which allows one to care in the proper way, a true discourse for one’s own moral stance. Meanwhile, EBM and narrative medicine are converging towards a point at which medicine is considered practical knowledge.”

Put simply, most scientists espouse and distinguish certain objective properties of theories from the subjective sense of beauty in contemplating a theory. However, not all scientists agree as to what aesthetic properties a theory must possess to influence as ‘cute.’ Yet, notwithstanding everything, aesthetic, or appealing, one thing is apparent: they often acquiesce to beauty in theories that encompass simple mathematical equations, the splendour of truth and beauty of the universe, the symmetries of nature, the sublime exquisiteness of the DNA, or Alia Bhatt’s basic face, among others.

There hangs a tale and its on-going saga apropos of the definition of prettiness, or comeliness, as exemplified by John Keats’ famous precept, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

The writer is a wellness physician, independent researcher and author


A version of this article appears in print on January 10, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.

Follow The Himalayan Times on Twitter and Facebook

Recommended Stories:

More from The Himalayan Times:

One school, one nurse programme to start in Dhading

DHADING, SEPTEMBER 27 Bagmati Province Ministry of Social Development’s ‘one school, one nurse’ programme is expanding to 26 community schools of Dhading district from this year. The programme will also run in two secondary schools in the district. The programme began from 20 schools of Read More...

Another woman succumbs to COVID-19 at BPKIHS

KATHMANDU: A woman infected with COVID-19 succumbed to the disease at BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences (BPKIHS), on Monday morning. The 38-year-old woman from Dharan Sub-metropolitan City of Sunsari district had been undergoing treatment at the emergency ward of the hospital. She was ad Read More...

1,351 new cases take Nepal’s coronavirus tally to 74,745 on Monday

KATHMANDU: Nepal’s coronavirus tally moved to 74,745 as 1,351 new infections were reported in the last 24 hours. As many as 742 people that had earlier contracted Covid-19 tested negative for the infection as per the Ministry’s latest data. So far, 54,640 people have recovered from the diseas Read More...

Liverpool boss Klopp not anticipating any further arrivals

Liverpool will not make further additions to their squad in the transfer window unless they lose first-team players to injuries, manager Juergen Klopp has said. The reigning Premier League champions bolstered their squad with the signings of Thiago Alcantara, Diogo Jota and Kostas Tsimikas bu Read More...

"Planet is dying", India's 8-year-old climate crusader warns

NEW DELHI: When 8-year-old Indian climate change activist Licypriya Kangujam is older, she wants to launch a solo mission to the moon to research ways to save planet earth. One of the world's youngest climate change activists, Kangujam was influenced by the images of the devastation caused by Read More...

Worldwide coronavirus cases cross 32.97 million, death toll over 994,000

At least 32,979,301 people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 994,217 people have died, a Reuters tally showed. Beijing on Monday called on importers to shun frozen food from countries suffering from severe novel coronavirus outbreaks after several cases Read More...

Baitadi district

Baitadi jail facing challenges due to overcrowding

BAITADI: District Jail, Baitadi has been facing problems in the management since it has been housing more than twice the number of jailbirds to its capacity. The jail is currently housing 58 persons including 31 inmates and 27 detainees. However, the prison only has the capacity to accommodate Read More...

Kathmandu Valley records 817 infections on Monday

KATHMANDU: Kathmandu valley logged over 800 additional cases of coronavirus infection in the last 24 hours. As per the Health Ministry’s latest report, 817 new infections surfaced in the valley today, which 60.47 per cent of the total caseload. Read Also: 1,351 new cases take Nepal’s coro Read More...