Richard Feynman's ode to a flower: June inspiration


Summer flower

You cannot listen to Richard Feynman and not get excited about understanding the world through science. He was - and still is through his lectures - one of the most wonderful science communicators of our time.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist born in 1918. He was famous for his work on quantum electromechanics (he won a Nobel Prize in 1965) and his inspiring lectures which were often attended by many who didn't actually study physics.

Feynman was keen to learn how to draw and often went to get lessons from artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian, and Jerry would get science lessons in return. Feynman even described mathematical formula using diagrams which allowed him to make extremely fast calculations. 

There is a famous clip where Feynman talks about a conversation he had with Jerry. Jerry held up a flower and said "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing."

In this animated Ode to a Flower clip from Christopher Sykes’s 1981 BBC documentary about Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, you can hear his response:

Richard Feynman - Ode To A Flower from Cub Studio on Vimeo.

'I have a friend who's an artist and he's some times taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree, I think. And he says, "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it's not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure... also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting - it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question - does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are... why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.'

Is art just aesthetic?

Painting chili

For me art doesn't just look at the aesthetic nature of the flower it also studies it in depth. Through art you can look intensely at how the flower is constructed, how the petals are soft but also have structure, the veins in the leaves, how they spiral around a central stem. The way you draw or paint or interpret that flower will convey how you think and feel too. In this way art can also give you that extra depth of understanding that perhaps someone rushing past a pretty plant on their morning commute may not appreciate.

Feynman put this in a much more poetic way in an introductory essay to a book Art of Rich P Feynman: Images by a Curious Character. The essay was titled But Is It Art?:

"I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe."

If only we had had science teachers like Feynman at school. His sense of curiosity, wonder and love of findings things out just for the sake of learning is infectious! You can read lots about his connections between art and science on the amazing Brain Pickings website.

What do you think of when you see a flower? What do you observe? Feel? Understand? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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