The Beauty of Shalom

© Ruth Bancewicz

I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Secondly, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements. Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations. Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, that is also beautiful in its own way.[1] We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world.

It was a sort of act of faith with us that any equations which describe fundamental laws of Nature must have great mathematical beauty in them…It was a very profitable religion to hold and can be considered as the basis of much of our success.                                                                                Paul Dirac

Finally, there is the beauty that the scientist themself brings to the data: the black and white telescope images that are coloured to distinguish between different wavelengths of light, elegant graphs, or a carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation filled with photographs of microscopic organisms.[2] Each of these four types of beauty involves characteristics that are intrinsic to the natural world, but also require observation, imagination and creativity on the part of the scientist. We enjoy scientific beauty – the startling elegance of the mathematical solution, or the model that makes sense of what seemed to be a muddle of data – in the same way that we enjoy the serenity of a garden or carefully tended olive grove on a summer’s day. As Shannon Stahl said, it’s the beauty of shalom: not only is the prospect attractive, but it is also deeply satisfying, ordered and harmonious. To achieve that state the scientist, gardener or farmer has expended time and energy. Bringing order from chaos, watching things develop and become chaotic again and bringing order once more using reason, creativity and imagination, is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. The process is usually protracted, complicated, expensive and often painful, but we somehow have the drive to do it over and over again. To me, the Christian teaching that God has made us in his image using a long and complex process in order to work out our own processes in the world, makes perfect sense of this experience.


[1] Alexander, D.R. Truth and Beauty in Science. Lecture delivered at the C.S. Lewis Symposium, Cambridge, 2008.
[2] Ibid.

7 thoughts on “The Beauty of Shalom

  1. chrisnamastephys11 June 28, 2012 / 2:28 pm

    I really enjoyed and appreciate this post, indeed, Ms. Bancewicz! I especially liked the quote you included by Paul Dirac! I found another one from a Wikipedia article on him:

    “It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better.”

    Source: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2010/06/25/the-evolution-of-the-physicists-picture-of-nature/ via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Dirac.

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  2. michala June 29, 2012 / 5:50 pm

    Why would God use evolution which could cause pain and suffering to every living creature?This is a moral question and there is a lack of evidence to suggest God used evolution in this way.The earth must have looked like a living experiment gone tragically wrong.Evolution is not a true science i.e. you cannot make predictions of what an evolved living thing would look like in the future.Unlike physics whereby you can predict movement of planets etc.It is forensic science with different interpretations of the evidence.Equations in physics can be fixed and universal[gravity],but the Chaos Theory and Drakes Equation could have margins of error which would collaspe the whole theory.In theory they may be possible,but in practice well… evolution… it gets very complicated!

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    • michala July 2, 2012 / 10:33 pm

      There is biology and evolutionary biology.There is also a striking difference between the two sciences.Biology is dependable,traditional,experimental,predictable Vs Evolutionary Biology is not as reliable as you cannot use experiments to prove macro evolution[FRUIT FLY EXPERIMENTS] & cannot predict what a living species would look like if it evolved in the future.To date,there is no theory or equation to predict this point.therefore,unlike physics,if evolutionary biology is not fixed or universal how can you predict life on other planets[drakes equation]by assumption,of course!!!!!!!!!!The chaos theory may/ may not be compatible with
      evolutionary biology.

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      • michala July 5, 2012 / 10:21 pm

        It seems the purpose of science was once described as ‘to free from Moses’ now it seems science has progressed to a point whereby ‘to free from the shackles of Darwinism’ as more scientists do allow God ‘a foot in the door’ as Darwinism cannot explain the whole process of evolution.If you believe in a cruel,pain inflicting God who used evolution to ‘create’ this is not a beautiful process or a moral God.
        There is no indication in the Bible & lack of evidence to suggest God used evolution in this most cruel way.There is cruelty in Nature,but this is not a good reason to believe God used the same method or totally reject God & accept evolution as fact[like so many evolutionists[david attenborough,Darwin]who see cruelty in Nature and use this to reject a painless creation.

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  3. Richard Hosking July 2, 2012 / 11:47 am

    Hi Ruth, Great post, thanks for that. Love the idea of ‘shalom’ as a kind of integrated wholeness. Stephen Covey writes about the 4 dimensions of human nature – spiritual, physical, mental, social/emotional* – and I wondered if your categories of scientific beauty reflected these?

    1. Abstract beauty of the experimental system (spiritual)
    2. Practical process of experimentation (physical)
    3. Intellectual appreciation of the data (mental)
    4. Communication of the data’s beauty (social/emotional)

    Covey points out that most philosophies of life relate to these 4 dimensions. However, his book concludes with the personal conviction that universal principles of effectiveness ultimately originate from God**. (cf Mark 12:28-34)

    *‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Simon & Schuster (2004) p. 288 **p. 319

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  4. Mike Clifford July 3, 2012 / 4:21 pm

    A beautiful post. :-)

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