Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

An old, white-bearded man kneels on the floor of a messy and dark laboratory, lit only by a bright point of light emerging from the side of a glass flask. Two young boys look on as the man stares at the small plume of light in awe.

What Is the Aesthetic Value of Science?


An old, white-bearded man kneels on the floor of a messy and dark laboratory, lit only by a bright point of light emerging from the side of a glass flask. Two young boys look on as the man stares at the small plume of light in awe.
Detail from “The Alchemist” by Joseph Wright (1771) [source]

We usually associate aesthetic experience with the enjoyment of artworks and landscapes, but I have always found incredible pleasure in science and its history. While I value artists and the artifacts they create, to me they are on a par with scientists, who also offer beautiful, awe-inspiring creations. Engaging with nature, the subject matter of science, can itself be the source of deep aesthetic experiences, but so too can engaging with scientific discoveries, instruments, and performances of experiments. Science can evoke unrivaled aesthetic responses in us.

In my work, I have explored the ways in which aesthetics enters experimental practice. Celebrated experiments in the history of science, from Foucault’s demonstration of Earth’s rotation to Rutherford’s discovery of alpha particles, can be seen as a source of aesthetic value. This value can be experienced in a number of contexts. The experiment can be focused on a natural phenomenon that we find beautiful or awe inspiring, from seeing cells under the microscope to neuron structures resembling branching trees. The very instruments used can provide aesthetic value.

In a recent demonstration at the Whipple Museum at the University of Cambridge, I was with a group that got to experience firsthand how microscopy was conducted centuries ago when the first microscopes were invented. We observed specimens using a replica of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, and other impressively powerful instruments invented in the 16th century. We marveled at the beauty of these early instruments, which embodied so much aesthetic sense with their ornate embellishments and intricate tactile details, combining varied materials with elegant engravings. Microscopes today don’t look like Leeuwenhoek’s or any of the other skillfully embellished, beautiful instruments of that era, but many of the principles on which these early microscopes were designed have influenced modern microscopy. There is something very powerful and beautiful in this fact. The instruments, whether their visual beauty or their rich history, evoke a deep aesthetic response in us.

Scientific instruments are beautiful artifacts, but scientific experiments are also aesthetically inspiring. A recent study shows that scientists actually care a great deal about beauty in their work. The study, led by sociologist Brandon Vaidyanathan, surveyed over three thousand scientists across four countries about their daily work, what motivated them, and what they found rewarding or challenging. The study found that researchers who had positive aesthetic experiences in their scientific work, for instance, pleasure at the elegance of experimental objects or design, were likelier to experience greater well-being, less burnout, and greater work satisfaction. In short, aesthetic experiences significantly contribute to scientists living flourishing lives.

Curious to learn more about the role aesthetic experiences play in the everyday lives of scientists, I joined Brandon Vaidanathan and two additional co-authors, Bridget Ritz and Marcela Duque, to analyse data collected during the project and carefully studied interviews with 215 biologists and physicists. These interviews showed that the aesthetic experiences scientists have in the lab matter centrally to their motivation for pursuing science in the first place, and moreover that their overall satisfaction in their work is correlated with the aesthetic dimension of their work.

We found that for many scientists, being creative—making something well, elegantly, or beautifully—is a source of great satisfaction. This can manifest in making an instrument perfectly suited to its purpose, crafting an elegant experimental design, or presenting the data in a more streamlined and visually pleasing style. We uncovered that a sense of agency attends these activities, and the absence of opportunities to be creatively involved in their work was drudgery that scientists had to suffer through until opportunities for creativity arose again. Above all, any surprising results scientists achieved, whether they supported or challenged a previous assumption, were seen as the ultimate source of aesthetic pleasure. Surprising results were a source of awe and wonder, an opportunity for further creativity in imagination and investigation.  

Our study identifies the ways that experiments are appreciated across different experimental traditions and settings. Despite the changing nature of experimental practice, from the once lone scientists in a meagerly outfitted room to the thousands of scientists working on experiments that transcend national borders, experiments continue to evoke aesthetic responses in scientists and those responses are seen as highly rewarding. As far back as the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, scientists such as Robert Hooke and Joseph Priestley were reflecting on their aesthetic experiences of their work in the lab. Our participants similarly found aesthetic rewards in designing and performing experiments. Interestingly, they found aesthetic value not only through the senses. Rather, they found beauty in appreciating the design of the experiment, the ingenuity in the creative process, and even in the history of the instruments, through which they experienced a deep connection to the past.

A central idea that came from our interviews was the importance of agency in the experimental process. Our participants consistently stressed the importance of creativity and imagination, of the pleasure of their own involvement in shaping a process with their own aesthetic sense. But scientific practice is changing with the increasing automation of scientific discoveries and especially with the increasing involvement of artificial intelligence. In an age where AI is used not only to run experiments and analyze data, but also to design experiments, a process so valued for its involvement of creative and imaginative thinking, we might fear that the aesthetic experiences so important to scientists will disappear. Philosopher Michael T. Stuart recently argued that the future of experimental practice will not be pretty—literally. The more experimental practice is automated, the fewer aesthetic experiences scientists will have in their work. This is worrying, especially when we consider the relationship between those aesthetic experiences and the scientists’ well-being and job satisfaction.

But perhaps there is reason to be hopeful. AI experiments can certainly produce visually pleasing results, for instance the intriguing protein structures predicted by Alpha Fold. But even more interestingly, the presence of AI changes the creative process itself. With scientists now using AI as a source of inspiration, their creative capacities could be enhanced. Take for instance the fascinating example of quantum physicist Mario Krenn. Krenn used AI to generate previously unconceived experimental configurations, which led to the discovery of new quantum phenomena. He even describes seeing the AI as an ‘artificial muse.’

This example opens a space for optimism. Like Krenn, we might see the role of AI as enhancing human creativity and broadening the set of creative possibilities available to scientists, not hindering them. We might see the involvement of AI in the creative process along the lines of how the great mathematician Henri Poincaré described the creative process, as involving an “unconscious machine” that produces solutions. Following a moment of illumination produced by the unconscious machine, however, Poincaré argues that we enter a refinement stage, where the idea is evaluated by our “delicate sieve.” So while AI might allow the conception of further possibilities, the refinement stage must involve the scientist, where the aesthetic sensibility—the human mind’s “delicate sieve”—brings the AI-generated design to fruition, making it more elegant and useful in the process. In this way, we might see AI as offering scientists new tools with which to create, and so enhancing rather than detracting from their already rich creative process.

Dr Milena Ivanova is a philosopher of science interested in the relationship between science and art, creativity and the automation of discovery. She teaches at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Duhem and Holism, published by Cambridge University Press in 2021, and the co-editor of The Aesthetics of Science: Beauty, Imagination and Understanding (2020), and The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments (2023).


  1. This wonderful post inspired me to put this together for those just becoming acquainted with or simply curious about more work along these lines (please bear in mind I am only an ardent amateur on this topic) :

  2. I enjoyed this post a lot. How much carries over to other professions and sciences, do you think? Engineers, coders, marketers, lawyers–I’m sure lots of people would say that beauty and aesthetic values matter to their work and are motivating factors for the enjoyment of their profession. Maybe even philosophers too! Obviously the remarks about tools wouldn’t carry over precisely, but I can imagine analogues of them for each. More generally, many professions involve solving ‘problems’ in ways that call for creative and novel solutions. Indeed, your points about AI might carry over to these professions. So is there something special about the role of aesthetic values in science? Is it simply that lay people think of aesthetic values as perhaps opposed to scientific practice?

  3. ‘and sciences’ in the first line should be ‘beyond science’.

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