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A Summary of the 1990 Sigma Xi Forum

Dimensions of Beauty in Science

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—About 800 people, including two Nobel laureates and other internationally renowned scientists, participated in the 1990 Sigma Xi Forum Dimensions of Beauty in Science at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Conference Center, on October 26-27.

Covering beauty in science from the atomic to the cosmic, the lectures and workshops featured a dazzling array of slides and videos—from fractals and magnified butterfly wings, to breathtaking views of the planets as seen from Voyager and Magellan spacecraft—that provided a refreshing reminder to many participants about why they had chosen research careers. "We went into science because we found it exciting," said John F. Ahearne, Sigma Xi's executive director. "What is missing is an explanation of what is truly beautiful about science." The unusual forum provided that explanation in talk after talk.

A case in point was a lecture by Duke University zoologist H. Frederik Nijhout titled "Scales of Beauty: From Cells to Butterflies," involving his studies of developmental biology. His main interest is the color of butterfly wings and how those colors developed as a protective camouflage. He said the consequences of communication between cells creates beauty in nature. Scales are among the most complex objects in nature, and they "dance together to produce actual color patterns." A close-up of swallowtail butterfly wing patterns was among the many colorful images that illustrated his talk.

Chemical physicist Terry Cole showed videos of close-up views of the Neptune, Venus, Mars and Saturn. Although the story is well known, seeing the results of decades of work at one time was striking. There were Jupiter and Neptune, with their huge dark spots of swirling gas. There was Uranus, tipped over on its side—perhaps by an ancient collision—with its misplaced "northern lights" shimmering at mid-latitudes. There were strange and distant moons like Neptune's Triton, with geysers thought to spew out liquid nitrogen, and Jupiter's Io, with its sulfur volcanoes.

Images from space probes were recombined using supercomputer technologies into a three-dimensional scientific data visualization. "I like to call these home videos," said Cole, who is chief technologist of energy and technology applications at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Home, because the solar system is our home. And videos, because they connect images from the spacecraft into a more comprehensible package." The videos provided spectacular glimpses of the planets and their moons and rings. He said space probes have created a new scientific field—comparative planetology. The discipline deals with differences among the planets, and the chemistry and physics of their formation.

Donna Cox, who works at the University of Illinois both at the School of Art and Design and the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, traced an explosion of pictography that began with prehistoric stone carvings and has culminated in computational science—the merging of art and supercomputing to produce striking images that also convey scientific facts. Some examples included a collision of neutron stars, the flow of hot plastics, the buildup of a thunderhead, the movements of smoggy pollutants in the Los Angeles basis and fire patterns in Yellowstone National Park.

A highlight of the symposium's Saturday session was provided by Richard Voss of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Substituting on short notice for Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Voss captivated the audience with his elucidation of fractals, Mandelbrot's brainchild, a new geometry of nature, the first mathematically unique explication since Euclid of "how nature makes shapes." Fractal geometry, as Voss demonstrated with dizzying graphics, not only renders natural landscapes explicable and predictable, but also suggests the existence of "self-symmetry" in nature.

Nobel laureates Roald Hoffman of Cornell University and William Fowler of the California Institute of Technology spoke respectively on "Empirical Molecular Aesthetics" and "Our Observable Universe: A Thing of Beauty." Other presenters included Andrea Dupree, senior astrophysicist at the Harvard/ Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs of the Smithsonian Institution; Paul Heidger, professor of anatomy at the University of Iowa; and John D. Roberts, Institute Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology;

The forum concluded with presentations on how science may help to maintain Earth's beauty against increasing environmental stresses. In his lecture "Beauty with Respect to the Human and International Dimensions of Science: A View of the Possible," Thomas F. Malone said the 20th century has been a golden age of science and technology, but that progress has its pitfalls. Malone is a past president of Sigma Xi and a distinguished scholar at North Carolina State University.

"It is not obvious that the potential for elevating human society to a higher plateau of existence will be realized," he said, noting that environmental by-products of industrialized countries are having a global impact, whereas in developing nations, "the pressure to meet human needs is resulting in environmental degradation and the draw-down of natural resources."

On Friday, the John P. McGovern Award was presented to Colin B. Blakemore, Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford in England, who spoke on "Genes and Environment Build the Beauty of the Brain." At Saturday's closing banquet, Sigma Xi's William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement went to Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who spoke on "Beauty in the Depths of the Ocean."

Forum supporters included American Airlines, Burroughs Wellcome, Glaxo Inc., IBM, Duke Power Co., Carolina Power & Light Company, Ciba-Geigy, Organon Teknika, Southern Bell, Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., MCNC and the North Carolina Supercomputing Center.

 

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