The Beauty Issue: Four Scientists on the Fascination of Their Fields

By Erin Biba

This story is part of a the Nob Hill Gazette’s feature, Perspectives on Beauty, in our March issue.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and when you’re a scientist, that’s probably more true than in any other circumstance. Spending years studying something that most laypeople wouldn’t even notice, let alone love, teaches you to appreciate the beauty in the mechanism, the makeup, or the movement of an object. Four scientists told us about what they find beautiful in their research areas.

Adam Becker Astrophysicist UC Berkeley

Becker by Iris Lei

Stellar nucleosynthesis is just a fancy way of saying that stars build atoms. More specifically: Basically all of the elements on the peri-odic table aside from the first two (hydrogen and helium) come from stars. (Those came from the Big Bang, as did a really small amount of lithium, the third element, but that’s it.) All stars build atoms slowly during their lifetimes, by fusing lighter elements into heavier ones, but the biggest stars also create elements quickly and violently at the end of their lives, when they implode or collide with other stars. So, nearly everything in your everyday life comes from a star — the oxygen you breathe, the calcium in your bones, the carbon in your food and your body, even the gold in the ring on your finger. We are surrounded by starstuff. Indeed, as both Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchell said, we are star-stuff. And that’s a beautiful idea.

Sarah McAnulty Molecular and Cell Biologist The University of Connecticut

McAnulty by Iris Lei

It may not be apparent from the calamari on your plate, but living squid are one of the most beautiful animals on earth because they can change color at the speed of thought, thanks to their brain’s control over their skin cells. This skin has two colorful layers — the top has many balls of pigment called chromatophores that expand and contract to form pat-terns for camouflage and communication. The bottom layer contains cells called iridophores, appropriately named for their iridescent shine. These cells can change color by bending light that reflects off them to meet your eye. To control the color reflected, these cells change shape to appear pink, green, purple and blue. Squid can seem to sparkle in the sunlight, and iridophores are the structures we have to thank for these gorgeous light displays.

Dr. Franck Polleux Neuroscientist Columbia Zuckerman Institute

Polleux by Iris Lei

Mitochondria, a vital organelle that exists by the thousands in each of our 37 trillion cells, are the cells’ energy producers and usually look like long tubes. But inside neurons in our brain they can take on a smaller, spherical shape, like golf balls. The unique shape of these mitochondria isn’t just a curiosity: It serves an important purpose. Neurons are unique among cell types; they have tendrils that expand outward from their body. … In fact, many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, affect mitochondria’s shape. This surprising role for mitochondria in the brain also stands in contrast to what we are taught in school. Mitochondria are supposed to have one job: energy production. But in neurons, they appear to have another, specialized role — showing that this ancient and complex organelle still has some secrets yet to be revealed.

David Shiffman Shark Conservation Biologist Simon Fraser University

Shiffman by Iris Lei

Most people don’t think of sharks as beautiful, but these animals’ form is so perfectly suited for their environment that they haven’t changed much in hundreds of millions of years — there were animals you’d recognize as sharks swim-ming in the oceans before there were dinosaurs (or even trees) on land! Their body form, their denticle-covered skin that helps them move through the water, their light and flexible cartilage skeleton, their amazing senses including the ability to sense bioelectric fields of prey hiding under the sand. Watching an animal powerful enough to bite a dolphin in half swim gracefully and effortlessly through the water makes you rethink not only where you stand in the food chain, but your place in the world. If that’s not beauty, I don’t know what is.

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