Saturday, August 11, 2007


In the previous post about Dangerous Ideas, Amara and Quasar brought up the issue of designer babies, and I want to give that discussion a somewhat different spin. If parents could customize their babies, most would try to choose the best premises for their children to be happy. Or would they prefer them to be successful? After all, eventually the new Einstein's fame might fall back onto his parents.

But there are many other things to consider. It's really not that easy, is it? Unconfirmed or not, if there is even an oh-so-slight possibility of a correlation between height and intelligence, wouldn't it be better if the kid was tall? On the other hand, intelligence doesn't necessarily make happy, does it? Neither does it guarantee wealth. But you also don't want to end up asking your daughter If You're So Dumb, Why Aren't You Rich?

And then there is the unavoidable question of boy or girl. In a progressive society as ours, we of course wouldn't fall for the prejudices of our ancestors who thought a man more worthy than only his rib. No, we would rely on what research says, and who wouldn't want a pleasantly smiling baby? So you might want to take into account that "As Infants, Girls Appear More Emotionally Stable than Boys: Boys were more likely to cry and fuss and to turn, twist [...] They were really just trying to get attention". (I couldn't find a study that says at which age this behaviour stops.) Anyway, if you still want a boy, make sure his ring finger isn't too long.

Gee, it's getting really complicated with the design, isn't it? And it's getting more complicated the more we think we know about humans. Wasn't that nice in those days when we could just have sex? *sigh* But nowadays, you know, we just want the best for the kid.

Besides all these important points, there's the question of looks. Yah sure, we all know good looks don't matter, it's the inner value that counts, blahblah. But it can't harm if the kid is tall, and blond, and has a perfect nose, can it? So, honestly, if you could change anything about your looks, would you?

Just among the two of us, I for my part would really like to be some inches taller. I'm not much of a designer babe, but it's mostly Italian and French women's clothes that actually come in sizes I can wear. Such, the outcome of my shopping trips is either unnecessarily expensive or unnecessarily unfashionable.

Anyway, before I start complaining about this fuzzy hair that runs in the family, consider for a moment a world in which everybody could change arbitrarily the way he or she looks. Customize your hair and skin color, heights, bra-size, whatever. Don't like your toes? Your butt? That belly fat? Blink it away (who needs toes anyway). Okay, done? What would we have then?

To begin with we'd have a lot of beautiful people that fit into designer clothes, and who change their looks according the the recent fashion. Now lets see where this gets us. Well, our perception of beauty has grown with evolution. Characteristics we prefer most often have a biological background, and are linked to health, fertility, intelligence. The subtleties however change over time, with culture and tradition. Interestingly, they change rather fast, that is within only a couple of generations. E.g. I'd guess most Kate's from today would find the probable status of Leopold's teeth utterly repelling, and I wouldn't touch a guy with a wig. Even more interesting is how attractive we consider body fat or a tan (rspt. absence thereof), ornamental extensions or various kinds of creative self-mutilation.

Humans differ from other species mostly through the amount of time they spend thinking about something else than survival. A considerable fraction of that time is spend thinking about themselves, and about what others think about them (one can iterate that some more times). So we've used our big brains to form a society that provides possibilities to sneak around what we consider evolutionary disadvantages. The (logical?) continuation being to directly influence the 'fitness' of our genes.

The pre-stage to this fitness-enhancement already exists: we bleach our teeth to a 'healthy white', shampoo ourselves sexy, remove unwanted hair, get breast implants, take hormones for the fatter muscles, and pills for softer skin (you find the links in your junk mail folder).

And we hear people proclaiming they do it for themselves because it makes them they feel better. Sadly, even after you subtract self-deception, I think to a certain degree this might actually be true. It makes us feel better if we do what we think is the best to make ourselves loved - whether or not it works on the long run:

    Breast implants linked to suicide risk

    "Women who receive implants for breast enhancement are three times more likely to commit suicide, according to a new report that offered a sobering view of an increasingly popular surgery. Deaths related to mental disorders, including alcohol or drug dependence, also were three times higher among women who had the cosmetic procedure, researchers said. The report in the Annals of Plastic Surgery's August issue was the most recent to detect a higher suicide rate among women who had their breasts enlarged, providing a gloomy counterpoint to studies that showed women felt better about themselves after getting implants. Though the study did not look at the reasons behind the suicides, senior author Joseph McLaughlin, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said he believed that many had psychological problems before getting implants and that their conditions did not improve afterward."

However, once we've outlived our evolutionary programme that suggests a link between the appearances that are currently considered 'beautiful' and healthy spouses, these labels of attractiveness are destined to loose their appeal - or is there an universal kind of beauty that will survive? Can we rely on 'beautiful' tomatoes to be healthy, and harmful things to smell nasty?

Extrapolate that to the next generation and to other criteria than looks (do we really know what intelligence is?). If you design your 21st century boy according to your best understanding of optimal fitness you might just go completely wrong. Our knowledge has been overthrown repeatedly during the evolution of mankind, and there's no reason to believe our generation in exceptional in this regard.

Now you are faced with a situation where you will need to predict where evolution goes, so your spouse fits in optimally - and that prediction is affected by how much we believe in our prediction. Good thing we have such big brains to intelligently design our babies, eh?

    “If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Besides spending time on thinking about ourselves, another factor that seems to be characteristic to mankind is the arrogance that came with intelligence. The believe that we are capable to improve within a decade or two what nature has worked on for millions of years, and the conviction that we will be able to cope with all potential trouble we cause. It seems nature favors optimists, so we are loosing inhibitions to cause problems because we're sure we can solve them in time. I'm not against genetic engineering - it surely has a vast number of potential benefits. I'm just pointing out that if applied in abundance, there is the probability we kick off a boulder rolling downhills in our back, and we'll have to spend our last breath running ever faster, away from the spirits that we called.

But let us just for a moment humor the idea that we design away many of the links between beauty and fitness that evolution has left us with. The interesting question is then, if all our developed criteria for 'beauty' fail - what would they be superseded by? And what would that mean for our scientific endeavors?

    “How many leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys who got their revenge besting the jocks (who got the girls) in the one place they could—math class?”

Not to mention those of us who had to endure the insecurity of the small, pimply boys (sorry, couldn't resist. This sentence is definitely a highlight of the book). Anyway, what would a world without all the small, pimply boys look like? More beautiful? More boring?

Our perception of beauty is strongly linked to us being human. It has been formed through millions of years of evolution. Is there any reason to expect what we consider 'beautiful' is of cosmic significance? I there any reason to expect that us favouring symmetric patterns is linked to a fundamental feature of nature's laws?

Some while ago I sat in a seminar on cosmic strings, and I saw an animation about structure formation within that scenario. My immediate reaction was disgust - for the simple reason that I was reminded of a pile of crawling worms. I'm really sorry about it, but I'd call this utterly ugly, and I'd see a chance this might consciously or unconsciously influence my decisions to work on a topic. If you think this is totally nuts, then what makes you think other people's 'GUT-feeling', their intuitive liking or disliking, is more reliable? How many people work in astrophysics because they find the Hubble images beautiful? How many people are discouraged from becoming scientists because textbooks are 'ugly' (or the boys are insecure and pimply). And does this affect progress in research?

But more seriously: These worms really made me think. Are we too caught up in our human prejudices for beauty? Can we understand how the universe works without abandoning the limitations of being human? And can we consciously do that?

    "One always overcompensates for disabilities. I'm thinking of having my entire body surgically removed."

See also: The Beauty of it all

Since I'm tired of accusations made by people who didn't read what I wrote, or were not able to understand it, here's what I said in a nutshell.
1) Our perception of beauty has developed with evolution. What reason do we have to believe it is good guidance to understand the fundamental laws of nature?
2) If we aim to intelligently design the next generation, we should be aware that we are limited by our own intelligence. Do we want to pass that on?
What I've not said is
3) All theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys, and that's why they understand the universe
4) Big boobs are beautiful.


  1. Yeah, I think that "designer babies" is just a terrible idea driven by shallow, meaningless preferences. I think I won the reproductive "lottery" with my three kids. All of them are very attractive in the "culturally expected" ways, and that is such a surprise to me because I don't at all fit into the "cookie-cutter" image of beautiful. It's weird sometimes for me to see these beautiful things that came out of my plain, even ugly body. I guess my genotypes are superior to my phenotypes. Don't judge a book by its cover, I guess. ;-)

    It's especially frightening to me about how beautiful my daughter is. She's only 8 but she's already beautiful in the ways in which all people agree. I worry that she'll be treated differently because of her looks (I've already noticed some of that happening in positive and negative directions), and I don't want her to grow up thinking that just because she's so pretty she won't have to work as hard or that she should have special treatment. And I also worry that she'll be the target of men who can't see past a pretty face and body and who will only want her because of those things.

    Before having kids I would have said more things that I'd change about my looks: taller, thinner, bigger boobs, all the "typical" things, etc. But after seeing that I've produced some beautiful children I've become a little less judgmental against myself. But even that attitude isn't great.

    I guess my point with all that is that even though you might try to "design" a baby based on the appearance you'd like, you can't really be sure that the genes will be expressed in the way you expect. It's kind of funny how many very beautiful people end up with kind of fat and ugly kids. And vice versa, as in my case. ;-)

  2. Well, I very much agree with point #4! (Which would work out even better if g was smaller...)
    Here's my infamous (if narrowly heard of) formulation of what I look for in a female:

    I seek the sublime superposition of supreme sentience and supreme succulence.
    More eloquently (?) and broadly put, I seek a woman with:
    1. The mind of a Curie
    2. The face of an angel
    3. A bust like a Guernsey
    4. A derriere like a mare.

    Well really I already settled for about 2.5 out of 4.

    As for bioengineering humans: One good thing to do for health, is take away our ability to store extra fat. It just wouldn't collect no matter how much you ate. Or, to conserve resources, smaller stomachs would be better. That way we couldn't eat as much to begin with.

    PS: Could the saying "string theory is a can of worms" get around?

  3. Neil, thanks so much for your valuable comment. I am not entirely sure what you agree on, but I've reformatted the last paragraph for better readability and bold-faced the important word.

  4. Oops I didn't notice that "not saying..." caveat in there the first time... That must be typical of the guys don't listen to what women say thing, unless they mention certain subjects, and then men hear what they want to hear? Yet indeed, despite my humorous (?!) excursion, I did settle for someone expressing only modestly my own point #3. About the fat/eating thing, that really is going to do us in if we don't get a handle (heh) on it.

    For those who like jokes, here's another, biology pun, and my last unsolicited such offering for awhile:

    Q: How did life begin?
    A: Atom and eV

    While I mourn the peculiar recent passing of my being top Google for "quantum measurement paradox" (did they just change ranking criteria?), I am top for "atom and eV" today.

    PS - Very interesting discussion continues at Cosmic Variance about anthropic principle, etc.

  5. Hi Neil:

    Yes, I had mistakenly assumed that readers would at least read the last three sentences, and not only three words. At least you have a sense of humor ;-) Unfortunately, your pun doesn't quite work for me. I've never heard anybody pronounce eV as 'eve'.

    Reg. the AP, I've said everything I have to say here, and am unwilling to waste time repeating myself. I genuinely don't think the topic deserves as much attention as it gets.



  6. hi bee,
    your not thinking of breast implants, do you ?


  7. now dont get me wrong, that was just a joke;)

  8. Bee: If you've not seen The Twilight's Zone: The Eye of the Beholder, then please try. It's classic.

  9. Unfortunately, your pun doesn't quite work for me. I've never heard anybody pronounce eV as 'eve'.

    Sure, it's "ee vee." I think your assessment shows that people process puns in different ways. I appreciate atom and eV by just looking at it as similar, albeit not spoken the same as the ref. Bee thinks of how it would sound, to be a good pun. Interesting.

    Yes, lots of good ranging over thoughts and issues around here.

  10. lol Bee,
    other than change the balance in my swiss bank account, I guess I'd want to increase the size (range) of my telescope, to see farther than has ever been seen before.
    Mind you, I wouldn't be adverse to kevin Costner's gills in Waterworld, or a set of wings.

    As for designer babies, worth noting that each one of us IS one in a million to start with, can science really improve on that. However filtering out any genetic diseases is probably desirable, I don't think anyone is 'happy' to inherit life threatening or debilitating genetic defects.

    I guess like you mentioned in a prior post "In some cases it is best not to know"

  11. Hi A,

    Sorry to disappoint you, but no.

    Hi Amara,

    No, I don't know the movie, will give it a try if I get a chance!

    Hi Neil,

    Ha, I am just pround each time I figure out an English pun ;-)

    Hi Quasar,

    Yes, I agree. If there is good reason I am certainly not against using scientific insights to make for a better future. I don't think though one should use a potentially dangerous technology without the necessity to do so. The more it's used before really understood, the more likely something is to go wrong (and I am not among the optimists that we will always be able to solve all problems in time).



  12. Dear Bee,

    Nice article! When every woman looks like Julia Roberts or Brigette Bardot or whomever, and every man like whomever else, then being oneself will be a powerful novelty.


  13. Dear Rae Ann:

    I sometimes wonder whether it is due to the development of the media which so easily and quickly distributes visual information that we have come to attach beauty to looks? Besides the fact that from the photos you shared on your blog I can't understand why you'd refer to yourself as 'ugly', I personally think beauty often isn't superficially visible. I agree with you that most of our attempts to 'design' the next generation would probably have a quite unexpected outcome. So I guess I'd prefer the old-fashioned way ;-)

    I am sure your daughter will be fine with your help. It's one of these cases where an awareness of the matter can make a difference. I think being good looking like other talents that one is 'born with' - say being a fast runner, having a beautiful voice, etc - are a priori neither advantages nor disadvantages for personal development, but depend a lot on how they are reflected within the person's character.

    I actually tend to believe that we indeed have some perception of 'beauty' that connects us to the laws of nature on a very fundamental level. But I've lately asked myself how much of that believe is wishful thinking, and how much of it is reasonable. That was basically the reason for this writing.



  14. Dear Arun:

    Thanks for the kind words. Actually, my thoughts were running into the same direction. It's a bit like in arts, where novelty is the way to get attention. But besides the new and hip stuff, there are always still the 'classic timeless beauties' around. However, how many people have cave paintings as decorations in their living rooms? How timeless is timeless? Best,


  15. "Are we too caught up in our human prejudices for beauty? Can we understand how the universe works without abandoning the limitations of being human?"

    Yes, this always worries me. I remember a student who, to everyone's horror, said that Einstein's equation was ugly --- how much nicer without that silly term proportional to the Ricci scalar! And it is depressing to see how opinions on "beauty" can be modified by peer pressure: renormalization used to be regarded as an ugly necessity, but now it is politically correct to see it as a wonderful, even beautiful thing. Finally, I worry even more about something else: if string theory is right, then the universe can be understood by about one thousandth of one percent of the human population [I'm feeling generous today, ok?] Now isn't that an extraordinary coincidence, that humanity has *just barely* reached the level of intelligence needed to understand the universe, with virtually nothing to spare? If the universe had been 1% harder to understand, then we would never understand it. Sorry, but I really find that extremely hard to believe......

  16. Modern technology has allowed us to create many things which combine qualities not found in the natural universe - strawberry cheescake and Angelina Jolie for two examples.

    One aspect of beauty is certainly the absence of disease or deformity - if medicine and genetic engineering can achieve that, great. Another aspect is the exaggeration of qualities which in moderation are associated with fitness - very large muscles on a man, for example. This aspect easily becomes caricature.

  17. On that other thread you refered to (Quasar and I talking), I said that "If all one cares about in a society is a particular class of characteristics, then we are following a route of racism that only leads to suffering", but the characteristic of beauty is a little bit different because it is entirely subjective, and moreover, many 'beauty parameters' exist. The Twilight Zone TV series (50s/60s) episode I refered you to is all about the subjectiveness of Beauty. Those squishy evaluation criteria help the situation and I see only the usual attention to vanity and not anything dangerous, unless governments somewhere, sometime, decide that all babies must have permanently white teeth or something like that. And I would suggest to design against disease and deformity, as others have suggested.

    In our future I can't imagine that we will be designing beauty in babies and be at the mercy of our parents' ideals because fully grown posthumans will have that capability to choose themselves what they want and can adjust those parameters as they wish.

    In the futuristic short story I just finished one of my characters is a nongendered, phaugmental (posthuman+augmental) species who for some months is playing with skin textures and colors. On the day of my story his "purple-colored skin glistened, almost like a gel but nonsticky, and with a tactile elastic feedback" and such a skin is inviting to other creature to touch it. In fact, that is the creature's reason for choosing this skin, because it likes being touched. :-)

  18. I hope you don't mind this longish essay (book review was written for other purposes), as I think you might find food for thought. Bee, some of the issues that you raise in this post are explored in detail in a scholarly (many references) book called _Promethean Ambitions_ by William Newman. Man has been trying to perfect nature or imitate nature for thousands of years. I believe that it is part of our character to do so, arrogant or not!

    A General Outline of _Promethean Ambitions_ is the following:

    1) Relationship of various arts to nature in the ancient world (especially Aristotle's view) 2) Overview of alchemy with an emphasis of the art-nature debate (limits to the power that the divinity gave to humans) 3) Peculiar relationship between alchemists, painters, and practioners of the plastic arts during the Renaissance 4) The most controversial of alchemical claims are associated with Paracelsus von Hohenheim, who claimed he could create a homunculus. 5) The art-nature debate in the history of experimental science, focusing on Francis Bacon and his followers. 6) Further ramifications of the art-nature debate such as Charles Darwin's influence by the alchemical treatises of naturalist Koelreuter and Goethe's influence by Paracelsian's homunculus

    I don't know if you've read any Aristotle, but if not, I think that Aristotle's views on 'art' (his definition of alchemy) 'conquering nature' might interest you. Art was defined to 1) perfect natural processes and to bring them to a state of completion not found in nature itself (i.e. improve), and to 2) only imitate nature without fundamentally altering it, i.e.,. to imitate various aspects of the natural world.

    Another dimension to the Art versus Nature debate by the ancients (esp. Aristotle, in his book: _Mechanical Problems_) is *conquering* nature. Conquering nature exhibits one or more of these features:

    1) The making of a product whose artificiality could not be detected by the human senses 2) a product that was more pleasing than the natural 3) making natural objects behave in a fashion that was 'unnatural'.

    The first instances of 'Art is perhaps better than Nature' philosophy in human history perhaps appeared 2500 years ago. There are two papyri composed in Egypt around the 4th century C.E. called the Leiden and Stockholm papri (for the modern libraries, where they are stored). The papri state that "artificial is at least as good as the natural for the purpose of humans, perhaps better."

    The fruition of the grafting of Greek philosophical ideas onto the chemical technology of ancient Egypt did not occur, however, until later; clearly in the writings of the mysterious and prolific alchemist Zosimos, in upper Egypt around 300 C.E.. Zosimos' writing provided the means by which nature can pass from an imperfect state to a regenerative one. (perhaps Zosimos is the first cryonicist?)

    Once the primitive ideas of 'art' are set, the author presents questions that seem familiar, questions that art and alchemy has sparked over the next many hundreds of years: Was art always limited to the imperfect mimicry of nature or could human being genuinely recreate natural products? Did the assertions of the alchemists infringe on the power of God himself, turning man into the creator on the same level as the divinity? If alchemists could make precious metals, where did their powers end? To the replication of life? Could they improved on the life that the creator formed?

    It's a fascinating book and indicated to me that the transhumanists are not thinking in new ways, the debates of 'Frankenfoods,' cloning, in vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, artificial intelligence, and computer generated 'Artificial Life,' etc. are not new, either. Humans have been pondering these questions and working on the answers for thousands of years.

  19. lol Amara,
    I love every shade of skin from deepest shining ebony with luscious pink, to the pearly white sheen with bright purple veins. But glistening purple gel-like, or shocking orange hair, I could get used to that. After all Colour is in the Eye of the beholder
    PS - Skin contact makes me glow too, how much depends on touched by who

  20. Our love of symmetry and our brain's strong facial recognition skills are clearly due to tens of thousands of years of evolution.
    A result of finding compatibility within our gene pools to select the best mate for our future offspring.

    Otoh, people have sufficiently different tastes in nature, such that they can't even agree on who is beautiful or not unanimously. You might find a trend (larger breasts for women, etc) but then again Kate Moss never seemed to have a problem.

    Making designer babies doesn't change this in principle, it just gives the babies some arbitrary criteria of beauty selected by the parents instead of nature. Is that a bad thing? Maybe, but then im not so sure people's range in tastes are that much less vast than natures randomness.

    The analogy is poor with physics but I guess there is some similarity, eg: Schwingers ugly approach was just as valid as Feynmans beautiful one, and you can find a subset of people who will dispute that aesthetically =)

  21. Hi Prof. Anonymous:

    Yes, we have this tendency to tell ourselves things we work on are great and important, and beautiful. It's a bit like every mother thinks her baby is the prettiest ;-) But more seriously, you say

    if string theory is right, then the universe can be understood by about one thousandth of one percent of the human population

    5 Billions +/100,000 seems still an awful lot of people, and probably more than we need. How many people are there who really understand how a computer works? Numbers aside, in the last century I guess one could have said the same thing about general relativity. And one century later it's textbook knowledge. Speaking of GR, one could look at the action instead, no? The question is then, do we need to refer to 'beauty' or is simplicity the criterion?

    Hi A,

    get over it.

    Hi Anonymous,

    I've asked myself a similar question. If we had other preferences for beauty, would we still find the same theories, but just express them differently? E.g. it seems to me in GR one can divide people in those who like tensors in a coordinate basis the old-fashioned way, Ricci-calculus etc, and those who go for differential forms with * and wedges etc. Whoever you ask will say because it's 'simpler' and more beautiful, but one way or the other, it's just equivalent. So then the question is whether it matters to rely on beauty?



  22. Bee,

    Re: the idea of beauty in physics. I don't think it's new, but the modern preoccupation with the idea is probably mainly due to Dirac. From the May, 1993, Scientific American:

    P. A. M. Dirac and the Beauty of Physics; May 1993; Scientific American Magazine; by R. Corby Hovis and Helge Kragh; 6 Page(s)

    At the University of Moscow, distinguished visiting physicists are asked to leave on a blackboard some statement for posterity. Niels Bohr, father of the quantum theory of the atom, inscribed the motto of his famous principle of complementarity, "Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt" (opposites are not contradictory but complementary). Hideki Yukawa, pioneer of the modern theory of the strong nuclear force, chalked up the phrase "In essence, nature is simple." Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac chose the epigraph "A physical law must possess mathematical beauty."

    Exactly 30 years ago Dirac wrote in these pages, "God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe" [see "The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Nature," SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, May 1963]. Inspired by the views of Albert Einstein and Hermann Weyl, Dirac, more than any other modern physicist, became preoccupied with the concept of "mathematical beauty" as an intrinsic feature of nature and as a methodological guide for its scientific investigation. "A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data," he asserted.

  23. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for your nice words. I think I understood your concern in your writing, and in some sense I share it. As for how our society's skewed view of beauty, esp. regarding women, might influence science, I can't really speculate. I was saying that I think when compared to the society's image of beautiful, like supermodels, then I would be "ugly." Whether or not any individuals think I am is another issue, and one that makes me kind of uncomfortable. ;-)

    I think Lubos was reacting to the postmodernizing of the word "beauty", causing its meaning to be diluted or adulterated when used to describe theory. (Actually both your concerns seem to ultimately be similar: discomfort with this postmodernization of beauty. But from different perspectives. My apologies to both of you if I'm way off here.)

    Beauty has become a very emotionally charged word.

  24. The evolutionary process tends toward symmetry... ... ...

    ...and big boobs... HA!... ;)

  25. Since you and Lubos seem fascinated by worms, here is Darwin's last contribution:
    Since we have evolved to maximise survival of our genes, I do think that the underlying reality must be considerably different that that presented to our senses, just as it is considerably different to say, a bat.But I do think that beauty as a guide to truth of a theory is not ruled out by evolutionary processes.
    BTW your and Lubos' squabbling reminds me of my wife and teenage son and their "misunderstandings".

  26. Hi Bee,
    you are always asking what time is
    nice to know I'm only half as old on Mars, can't wait to get to Jupiter
    Your age on other planets
    Go to Pluto stay forever young (almost).

  27. My sister and her husband ommited mention of cosmetic alterations enjoyed (required) by each prior to their meeting, until their first child. Production tolerences added rather than averaged. Imagine ugly enough to stop a sundial.

    Depression is anger without enthusiasm, like being surrounded by folks with a five sigma intelligence deficit. Or visit the US Congress. It requires more than gene-gineering to clean up that mess. Abandon the species.

  28. Hi Bee,

    The posting made me think of "your" current Prime Minister, Dr. Angela Merkel, Who happens to be a (former) physics scientist.

    Her looks have really changed for the better the last years, though far from perfect.

    As the Ossies say: "Aus Sch.. ein Bonbon machen.

    Best Klaus

    Btw. I think the Lady is doing well.

  29. Hi Bee, had to go and take another look at your Beauty of it All
    and then found This Beauty

    lol Uncle Al,
    "Depression is anger without enthusiasm"
    and sadness is enthusiasm in the absence of beauty or joy

  30. Dear Bee,

    Is the Standard Model Higgs beautiful or what?

    To me it is economical, arbitrary and problematic. Economical in that we add very little to encompass symmetry breaking and masses in a mathematical scheme; arbitrary you know why; problematic because it introduces further mysteries, e.g., a fine-tuning problem.

    Beautiful? Ugly? How is beauty a guide to a theory here?

  31. Dear Plato: No, all human action is ... human action ! ;-)

  32. Bee: "However, how many people have cave paintings as decorations in their living rooms? How timeless is timeless?"

    Dear Bee: One of the apartments in my Castelli Romani area that I looked at for a possible place to live 4 years ago had a Roman column in the living room. I moved forward to some intermediate paperwork too, until I read (with an Italian lawyer's help) the owner's proposed contract. Among many restrictions listed was a paragraph of how I needed to take care about that living room Roman column and that I needed get permission from them, the owners, for every nail on the wall in the apartment (Roman column or not). As I think you know, I _cover_ the my walls in my home with photos and paintings, so no I didn't at the end have a timeless Roman column in my living room. :-/

  33. Beautiful? Ugly? How is beauty a guide to a theory here?

    Things that should be "beautiful" to a physicist are defined by the criterion for the preferred theory.

    The most accurate representation of nature in the least number of possible steps.

    That is beauty to a physicist because all of the other "typically" aesthetic features fall most naturally from this.

    My new sig file:

    Abandon the species
    -Uncle Al

  34. Hi CIP,

    Thanks for the reference!

    Hi Island,

    The evolutionary process tends toward symmetry... ... ...

    I strongly doubt that. Exactly how do you explain symmetry breaking?

    Hi Plato, Amara,

    Thanks for the pics! As a completely off topic question, does anybody know how to distinguish between chaotic and random? E.g. consider I have given a series of numbers, is there an algorithm or something that quantifies whether it's "really" random?

    Hi Arun,

    Well, I don't think beauty is a good guide. It can be very misleading because one might not have the full picture to judge on. How beautiful is a beach if you stare at the seaweeds full with flies and dirt? If you ask me, I'd find the standard model more beautiful if Chiral symmetry was unbroken to begin with. Reg the higgs the question seems to me more: do we have a 'better' solution?

    Hi Uncle,

    Depression is anger without enthusiasm,

    Despite its catchy sound I don't think this is a very good characterisation of depression. It would be more appropriate to call it the big 'lessness'. hope/sleep/rest/list. There's no place neither for anger nor enthusiasm.



  35. For chaos, one measure is when the lyapunov exponent is greater than one. There are probably more measures, though.

    For randomness, there is an algorithmic definition. If you Google on Gregory Chaitin's name, you'll find more.

    Probably I've only scratched the surface, but these two things came to my mind immediately..

  36. Hi Amara:

    Thanks for the link. Indeed that was exactly the same site my Google search brought up. I was actually hoping for something, uhm, with less text... it remained rather unclear to me how 'practical' that would be. I mean a series of digits is less random if I can give you an algorithm to compute it. But practically, how do I find out? I mean, say I take Pi from digit 100 to 200, it's definitely not random (all I need to tell you is how to compute Pi and start at digit 100) but how would I know if I got the 100 digits?

    Anyway, I will have to check the literature. I am not even yet sure what I want to know ;-)



  37. Hi Bee,
    I strongly doubt that.

    Oh, ye of little faith:

    Symmetry (physical attractiveness)
    In evolutionary psychology, symmetry especially facial symmetry is one of a number of traits, including averageness and youthfulness, associated with health, physical attractiveness and beauty of a person or non-human animal.[1] It is also hypothesized as a factor in both interpersonal attraction and interpersonal chemistry. Animal studies show that diseased mothers give birth to offspring that show greater asymmetries. From human studies, it is known that women with asymmetrical breasts are less fertile than those with greater symmetry.

    So I should have said; "big *balanced* boobs"... I guess... ;)

    The author further discusses symmetry as it appears in art and science, as well as in the modern age. Later, he expounds the view of symmetry as an evolutionary concept which can lead to a new unity of science.

    The author traces the enormous treasure of observations made in nature and culture back to a few underlying structural principles. He demonstrates symmetry as a far-reaching, leading, structuring, causal element of evolution, as the idea lying behind nature and culture.

    Bee said:
    Exactly how do you explain symmetry breaking?

    Necessary to the process, but then again, I see us as heading toward a big bang, as well as, away from one, so I guess that would have something to do our difference of opinion, no?

  38. Hi Island,

    I am aware of that, in fact that's why I meant to express our preference for symmetry as beauty might be in our genes. However, the fact that we consider symmetry as beautiful, and on the other hand 'select' beauty does not mean though that generally "The evolutionary process tends toward symmetry", as you said, which is a very broad and general claim. I can easily envision humans that are far more 'symmetric' than we presently are (eyes on the back of our heads? Spherical symmetric bodies?) yet I don't see that evolution generally promotes such increase in symmetry. On the other hand I see no prove that nature always and everywhere provides a link between symmetry and beauty. Consider a planet where unicolor is considered beautiful instead?



  39. On the other hand I see no prove that nature always and everywhere provides a link between symmetry and beauty.

    You might be right. In this case it's probably only "beautiful" when it is advantageous to be.

    Consider a planet where unicolor is considered beautiful instead?

    I had no idea that we had made contact. The things that ya can learn on the net, boy... ;)

    I think that the next universe will be more "flat" than this one is, though, as this one is more flat than the last, so when you take in all the factors... the effort is ULTIMATELY toward absolute symmetry.


    ash to ash
    dust to dust
    fade to black
    but the memory remains

  41. I wonder if there are any sociological studies about "designer bodies" and the consequences thereof in Second Life, or in similar virtual realities. There, you can actually chose how you look like, do you? Does everybody want to look beautiful there? And does this mean that there is some uniform look emerging?

    Best, stefan

  42. Amara: No, all human action is ... human action ! ;-)

    One "persons view" on beauty might not be another persons? I would think there would be reasons for this? Not just the "idea" that something could look like worms:)

    Do I detect somebody has a little less "feeling for worms?" Hey Bee?:)That such perfection would not hold such "tunnelling creatures," at such a state considering the "microseconds of our universe?"


    We are already project ourselves into these computers and have used parts of our brain. This format has become an "extension of our persons."

    So in a sense are we not defining each of ourselves by the experiences we put forth. "Our names" are developing character? What ever name we choose, we cannot not hide "that person we are?" This is more subtle?

    Do you not recognize me?:)

    Okay! not in the sense that you have already defined my character. heh! heh!

    But imagine all us persons in virtual reality, recognize each other, and yet, do not have a face.

    Maybe in passing by in the hereafter, with just such a thought. You are "here" and "there" which ever way the wind blows, or the ball "bobs on the waves?" We would then recognize such currents that belie the nature of our being that we might say, hey, such emotion is part and parcel of the thinking mind. Yet, the mind can think much clearer?

  43. Hi Stefan, interesting point.

    I've always wondered how much the arrival of tv had to do with morphing (facial morphing) of new borns. Of course changes were inevitable with mass travel and transatlantic travel and the mixing of genes, but tv seemed to break the 'mould' of village life (genetics) - even from within the same gene pool - tv seemed to induce changes in facial characteristics, or maybe it was the arrival of colour, (they all look 'more' the same in black & white photos) or perhaps it was purely coincidental.

    I'll have to discuss that more in depth one day, before the point becomes lost in a sea of homogenous morphing. Or maybe there is not so much morphing going on, just that we are no longer surprised by differences: black faces or even shocking orange hair. Though of course if someone were to walk around with a third eye on his forehead, he might some attract atttention.

    Hi Plato, in virtual world we may use no photo or have no 'face' but we still need some identification (even if we hide or disguise our IP) even if only as anonymous. But hard to be recognised as anonymous among a see of anonymouses, unless of course one is a frequent commenter with a particular style.

  44. "The mathematical laws governing nature are the origin of symmetry in nature, the intuitive realization of the idea in the creative artist's mind its origin in art."
    - H. Weyl

  45. Hello,

    I happened across this blog as
    a consequence of my interest in
    applications of algebra to physics.
    I am a 'failed' mathematician --
    I have a PhD in mathematics
    ( quadratic forms over fields )
    and a couple of published papers,
    and after a series of one year
    teaching contracts I've ended up
    as a 'Mathematical Statistician'
    for the federal government - which is not much of a job professionally.

    Beauty ? Well - I may not be Shrek,but I was always too small and ugly ( and poor ) to really compete for the attention of the
    opposite sex. I met my wife through correspondence - she's
    from the Philippines -- and we've
    been married now for 15 years.
    I'm 50 now, and even she doesn't find me attractive -- We have a
    13 year old son, who is now taller than me, and much better looking --
    ah, the wonder of genetics! I am
    SO glad that I don't have to explain the political aspects of sex to him, -- which is, of course, the really nasty part of things.

    Finally, at this late date, I am
    coming to accept the way of things and realize that feeling lonely is just the way it has to be for persons like me. On the other hand, as I said to a friend of mine recently, it's bad enough having to give up sex, but giving up mathematics is really a drag.
    I can still pursue it on my own --
    the obvious sad analogy suggests
    itself -- , but its not as much fun that way.

    Kind good thoughts to everyone.


  46. It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details.

    Jules H. Poincare

  47. Thanks plato, I may use that.


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