Sublime Science

By Girod, Mark | Science and Children, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Sublime Science


Girod, Mark, Science and Children


Byline: Mark Girod

I believe one of the shortcomings in most efforts to integrate art and science is that many of us have a shallow understanding of art, which inevitably leads to shallow connections between art and science. Coloring drawings of planets, building sculptures of volcanoes, and decorating scientific diagrams are fine activities, but they do not link science and art in powerful ways. One way to more deeply connect art and science is to consider art in its more broad form-aesthetics, and in this case, sublime.

Aesthetics is the study of beauty, taste, transcendence, and sublime. In aesthetics, sublime describes a feeling of astonishment at a phenomena, event, or experience. This feeling of astonishment so envelops us that the processes of the mind are suspended and cannot entertain anything other than the object or event (Burke 1990). This definition may be a bit overstated but certainly suggests the engaging power of sublime. Philosophers have categorized sublime into several elements, each one describing different instances or feelings of astonishment (Santayana 1955). "Science and Sublime in History" (page 27) explores connections of math and science and sublime.

Science and Sublime in History

Scientists and mathematicians have, for quite some time, written about the sublime. The mathematician Poincare describes his sense of motivation in the fields of math and science exploring "simplicity and vastness" as we explore the "giant courses of the stars" and with a microscope "prodigious smallness, which is also a vastness" (Chandrasekhar 1987, p. 60). Similarly, Heisenberg in a discussion with Einstein wrote, "You must have felt this too: the almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the relationships which nature suddenly spreads out before us" (Chandrasekhar 1987, p. 53). And most poetically, Whewell, in commenting on Newton's Principia, suggests an awesome admiration at the mathematics within:

As we read the Principia, we feel as when we are in an ancient armory where the weapons are of gigantic size; and as we look at them, we marvel what manner of men they were who could use as weapons what we can scarcely lift as a burden (Chandrasekhar 1987, p. 45).

For whatever reason, we often shield children from these characterizations of science. The trick is, in my opinion, to help children think more richly about what constitutes art and how we can explore aesthetics to learn more about science and the world around us, as is exemplified in the activity described here.

In science, discrepant events or counter-intuitive events-those in which you might expect one thing to happen, but another happens instead-can be sublime. Wise teachers use students' astonishment at the phenomena observed as a lead-in to investigations that will help them discard their naive understandings for more scientifically correct understandings (Liem 1981). I do not believe, however, that we have tapped sublime astonishment for all its worth. Who can deny the incredibly engaging qualities of a raging river, a fiercely howling wind, a night sky filled with stars, or a frenzied pack of feeding lions? Each of these natural occurrences is astonishing, engaging, aesthetic, and sublime.

This article helps teachers make apparent the artistic concept of sublime as they complete an integrated math/science activity that gives students a better sense of how big "big numbers" really are. As students begin to appreciate the enormity of these numbers-which are used in various science disciplines from geology, astronomy, physics, and more-they can in the same way begin to appreciate the sublime in other areas they observe in the natural environment, thus developing deeper artistic awareness.

By the Numbers

Science uses big numbers. We use big numbers to describe distances, time, volume, masses...it seems you can't go very far in understanding science without comprehending big numbers.

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