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In What Way are Experiments Like Artworks?

Scientific research usually is put in contrast with artistic expression. However, both are driven by creativity and aesthetic value.
Published onJul 17, 2023
In What Way are Experiments Like Artworks?

We might be surprised at the comparison between scientific experiments and artworks. Surely experiments require incredibly precise, time-consuming observations and measurements and their goal is to assist scientists in discovering objective truths about the world. Artworks, on the other hand, are often seen to have a very different goal, to evoke diverse emotions and have a rather subjective character. Experiments are seen as painstakingly precise in their performance and interpretation, while the making of an artwork is seen as spontaneous and its appreciation as individualistic. For this reason, we might think of experimental practice as a largely mundane affair, devoid of the aesthetic experiences that are paradigmatic of the creation of and engagement with artworks. Furthermore, experiments have often been contrasted with what is regarded as the highly imaginative, creative part of science; the generation of novel theories. On this view, experimental practice is dictated by the theoretical hypotheses it was designed to test. Yet in our new book The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments, we uncover the plurality of ways in which the aesthetic enters into experimental practice and shed new light on the analogies between experiments and artworks.

To begin, consider the product itself. Beautiful experiments are often regarded as such because we appreciate the way in which they have been designed. Some of the most celebrated experiments in science have been praised for their beautiful design. From the simplicity and economy of Galileo’s falling bodies thought experiment which challenged the Aristotelian view that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, the innovativeness and simplicity of the Messelson-Stahl experiment, which identified the mechanism by which DNA replicates, to the elegance of the Stern-Gerlach experiment which generated incredibly profound results regarding atomic properties. On this view, not only do beautiful experiments produce significant results—either by confirming or disconfirming hypotheses, by helping to identify new phenomena or techniques for discovery, or by posing significant theoretical challenges—they do so in a particular way; displaying qualities such as optimality, elegance, and simplicity. This allows us to see a similarity between scientific experiments and “experimental art”, such as the avant-garde art of the 20th century that sought to challenge and disrupt the norms governing the production and evaluation of art. While such works are not considered visually beautiful, their aesthetic appreciation is comparable to that of scientific experiments because it lies with the economy of their design, i.e., the use of minimal materials to convey their ideas.als

A second way in which experimental practice involves the aesthetic is through the emotional experience a scientist or an observer has through performing or witnessing an experiment. Such feelings of awe, wonder, and even experiences of the sublime, may be directed towards the experimental phenomena—as in the case of seeing the surprising interference patterns produced in the double slit experiment—or toward the instruments and technologies involved in conducting an experiment, such as microscopes, telescopes, and cloud chambers that enable us to extend our perceptual capacities. The aesthetic emotions that can be aroused by experimental practice are captured in the “scientific” works of painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). For instance, ‘An Experiment on a Bird with the Air Pump’ causes us to reflect on the experiment as a performance, a spectacle in which an audience can experience a diversity of aesthetic and emotional responses—from  intense intrigue and fascination, to horror—whereas ‘The Alchemist’ depicts a more private setting; a scientist’s wonder at unexpected discovery in the laboratory, which Wright depicts as genuinely scientific and at the same time, miraculous.

Comparison of Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird with the Air Pump’ and ‘The Alchemist’.

We might wonder whether any of these features—the elegant design of an experiment, the emotional responses they evoke and/or the public appreciation of an experiment as a spectacle—have any bearing on experimental practice today. What is the status of the aesthetic in contemporary experimental practice, given that it is so divorced from the kinds of activities 17th and 18th century experimenters were engaged in? Take the case of large-scale science which involves communities of researchers coordinating on common research projects, rendering individual scientists somewhat removed from the experiment as a whole.

Consider also the rise of AI in the design, conduct, and interpretation of experiments. Not only do these experiments also contribute to the “distance” between individual scientist’s actions and the practice of experimentation, but we might also regard their design as lacking aesthetic value. Yet they serve in discoveries and advance scientific knowledge. While such developments have clearly opened new possibilities for science, we also
raise the issue of whether contemporary scientific practice lacks positive aesthetic experiences. If so, does this matter for the goals science aims to advance? If one is to accept the idea that the more successful scientific automation becomes, the less aesthetic value we will find with it, we might worry whether the lack of aesthetic experiences in the lab will have negative implications for science. 

But what could these negative implications be, if the automation of scientific experiments is seen as leading to more precise and effective practice? For one, we might be concerned about the effect an aesthetically impoverished science has on scientists themselves. For instance, a recent sociological study revealed an intimate connection between scientists’ sense of well-being and flourishing at work on the one hand, and their experiences of beauty and wonder in the laboratory on the other. If life in the lab becomes progressively devoid of the beauty of the creative processes that lead to the innovation of apt instruments, procedures, and experimental set ups, scientists might have less aesthetic experiences in their practice which is seen as correlated with negative job satisfaction overall. We could also worry about the achievement of scientific goals, as we might argue that scientists do not only care about what they discover but also about how they discover; that elegance, beauty and simplicity in their work continues to act not only as a tool for producing useful science, but also producing science that is valued beyond its utility, for its beauty. 

The ten contributions in our book, The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments, offer the first systematic investigation of these topics and more. Through historical, philosophical and sociological perspectives, the authors direct us towards the idea that despite the changing nature of experimentation and its automation, scientists continue to celebrate the aesthetic qualities of their experiments. Further, this contributes positively to their daily experiences in the lab, which might very well have an aspect of mundanity to it. Cultivating creativity and planning elegant experiments that deliver profoundly significant results make scientists’ work analogous to that of artists. Experimental practice can bring about diverse aesthetic and emotional experiences, not only for the scientists who design, conduct and interpret the experiment themselves, but also for the public that can witness experimental practice. We hope our book is the starting point for further reflection on the importance of the aesthetic values and artistic aspects involved in a variety of scientific practices.  

~ Milena and Alice

Check out their book:

Milena Ivanova is a philosopher specialising in the aesthetics of science at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Duhem and Holism (2021), which explores how we learn from experiments, and is co-editor of ‘The Aesthetics of Science: Beauty, Imagination and Understanding’ (2020) and ‘The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments’ (2023). Her piece 'The Beautiful Experiment' won the 2022 American Philosophical Association's Public Philosophy Op-Ed prize. For more about Milena’s work, see her website.

Alice Murphy is a philosopher specialising on topics within philosophy of science, especially the imagination, aesthetic values, and creativity in science, at the University of Munich. She is co-editor of ‘The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments’ (2023). Her published papers as well as recordings of podcasts/public events that she has taken part in can be found on her website

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