Beautiful Science

Last week, we wrote about a temporary exhibit at the Huntington Library. Today is the anniversary of Kelly Johnson’s death. We mentioned several of Kelly Johnson’s written pieces in last week’s blog because he was a central figure in Southern California’s aviation history. Read about “Blue Sky Metropolis” HERE.

Past that exhibit is an ongoing display called “Beautiful Science.” Most science museums, while relatively aesthetically inviting as spaces, especially in the sense of being navigable, don’t emphasize the aesthetics of science itself and the artistic representation of science. The Huntington Library uses its texts and artifacts to show the art in science as well as science as art.

Yesterday, after she submitted her grades, Anna traipsed off to a physical bookstore, a reminder that we are writers and have specific writing tasks we want to accomplish over the holiday break. Among her purchases was the annual anthology of The Best American Science Writing. In their introduction, the editors Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Floyd Skloot, Rebecca’s father and author of In the Shadow of Memory, write the following:

“[I]n our experiences, the arts and sciences are more alike than not: both involve following hunches, lingering questions, and passions; perfecting the art of productive daydreaming without getting lost in it; being flexible enough to follow the research wherever it leads you, but focused enough to never lose sight of your larger direction and goals. There’s an alchemy that occurs when art and science come together, when the tools of narrative, voice, imagery, setting, dialog, are brought to bear on biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and their various combinations.”

That overview echoes the impetus behind and experience of “Beautiful Science.” In fact, an early placard in the exhibition says of observation, “Our desire to understand and organize the living world has been a story of wonder, curiosity, and discovery. Observation has led to text and imagery that have matched our changing perceptions of nature’s order.” In other words, the way we write about and represent science tells us a lot about ourselves as well as about the world around us.

And the Huntington Library’s exhibit runs the gamut of the sciences, from illustrations of flora and fauna to anatomical dissection drawings to displays of dozens of light bulbs. Of course, the exhibit includes texts, notably numerous mathematical texts with varying amounts of formulas and illustration, but also a letter from Albert Einstein. Perhaps the most interesting display is of edition after edition of Origin of the Species, sweeping in linear feet along two walls.

Like any good science writing, “Beautiful Science” asks you to read, to look closely at the universe around you, and to keep thinking about the ideas it offers up.

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913
Edwin Hubble’s Logbook, 1923

4 thoughts on “Beautiful Science

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