A Summary of the 1990 Sigma Xi Forum
Dimensions of Beauty in Science
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NCAbout 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 videosfrom fractals and
magnified butterfly wings, to breathtaking views of the planets as seen from Voyager and
Magellan spacecraftthat 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
sideperhaps by an ancient collisionwith 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
fieldcomparative 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 sciencethe 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
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
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