Science’s ascetic aesthetic

What does science look like? What do scientists look like? What do scientists’ workspaces look like? If you have a sense of any of these, it probably confirms to a deserved stereotype. Scientists like to claim that they don’t care about fashion, but that’s not quite true. They don’t care much about what’s fashionable, except to avoid it, and in doing so create a strong aesthetic of their own.

This aesthetic manifests itself in everything from architecture and office furniture to design and dress sense. Yes, that’d be the concrete box buildings to socks with sandals. The anti-einsturzende neubaten, if you will, and stuck in the same era.

So how does this aesthetic come about? Based on more conversations than I care to count, it comes down to something pretty simple: Scientists want to project an image that they really are all about the science, and that anything else is a distraction, a diminution of their aims. Scientists have become so acculturated by this idea that they have practically become ascetics, rejecting anything that might signify a motivation other than scientific research. Their environments and accoutrements lean toward bland simplicity, self-abnegating and almost monastic.

“We,” the scientists say in my imagination, “have much more important things on our minds than fashion. And so we will make sure that we can never be accidentally mistaken for subjecting ourselves to the whims of trends, which have no logical or rational reason for coming about.

“We find our beauty in the world of the mind and, to signify that to the each other and be part of the club, deny ourselves the so-called luxuries. We stick to the essentials of function and find ourselves empowered by our asceticism.”

Of course, there is no evidence that this really helps anything.

Everybody within the scientific community over a certain age knows what happened to Carl Sagan, not only for daring to try to communicate beyond his peers, but also for wearing his famous turtlenecks, which were out of place within the scientific aesthetic, but well accepted at that time as a fashion option within broader society.

And yet, Sagan did more for the public appreciation of science, and more for encouraging students to study science than just about any other scientist of the era.

In a strange reversal, it is only a matter of time before the hipsters accidentally adopt the scientific aesthetic, having already passed through the turtleneck phase. Then it would be race between them to reject it all, except that the scientific culture won’t have even noticed the hipsters until they are long gone. And not just that passing fashion, but the whole tribe.

It’s fair to ask why it even matters what fashion choices scientists might make. The issue is that the ascetic aesthetic pervades not just clothing but all kinds of choices about the scientific environment and plays a big part in determining the public image of science. Most surprisingly, it is a decisively anti-creative choice given that science is fundamentally a creative pursuit.

Even the constraints of this aesthetic might not necessarily damage the creative scientific process. But they do damage the image of science among non-scientists. And so we end where we began, looking for an answer to questions about what does science/a scientist/a scientist’s workplace look like. Scientists have a well-developed intracultural aesthetic. It helps them convince each other that they are serious about their work. But it doesn’t do much to convince the rest of the world to play along.

9 thoughts on “Science’s ascetic aesthetic”

  1. For a sampling of scientists who claim to eschew the ascetic, look no further than the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, a side project of the Annals of Improbable Research. I frequently receive advice of new members. On the other hand, their demeanour is otherwise generally drab, and I'm not sure all of them technically qualify as Scientists either… (Sorry, no link, I am on a crippled net terminal at a conference.)

  2. @Dylan: Isn't that a prime example of scientists choosing a physical representation that is not a culturally favored norm, but which can form a basis for self-identification and group bonding? It's not a tonsure, but as Brian taught us, "We're all individuals!"

    The Club does even have a name, after all…

  3. @David
    Seems more like a wry cry for belonging, kind of saying "I'm so glad to know there are others like me" while knowing that was the case all along.

    I don't know about the "scientists in [your] imagination" but have you asked any actual scientists about this too? And also, is there a relationship between the environment of scientists, and that of science teachers? Just musing from the other side of the world… Must go now, free drinks start in a few minutes.

  4. @Dylan: I sure have asked scientists about this, ranging from when I was doing research science through to present day in a research science institution. And the "imagining" is based on many conversations over the years, synthesizing the comments and arguments into one stream.

    I am very interested in the relationship between the environments of science and those of science teachers. I expect they are significantly different in some ways, most notably in the lack of peers for most science teachers who are the only or one of a very small number of science teachers in a school. But where are the similarities… I'm not sure off the top of my head.

  5. I think scientific ascetism has much to commend it for the same reason as clerical varieties: it is difficult to serve 2 masters. The problems of searching for truth in a for-profit environment are well known in the community. In the US health industry, we see insurance and pharmaceutical firms capitalizing tobacco companies to the tune of about $4B in investments. Leaving corporate consulting, and rejecting assistance from Raytheon, Lockheed, and USAF, in relative terms I've become destitute financially, yet lead a much richer life of research and contribution.

    …now, if I can only get funding!

  6. @BurntSynapse: I understand what you are saying about the problems of commercial money and pure research not mixing well, but why does that have to affect the aesthetic of science?

    I'd also question whether widespread scientific ascetism actually leads to richer research lives. What if a more openly creative culture attracted a broader range of creative people who, by turning that creativity to science, could advance science even further…

  7. Hi David,
    Not that I make the claim, but if I had to answer why ascetism MUST affect aesthetics I would turn to my own experience. When I made 3 digits per hour, my cars, condos, vacations, and clothes were all financially achievable. I now lack the money and interest for fasionable consumption. Reduced income places constraints that seem very likely to effect one's style, all other thing being equal, wouldn't you agree?

  8. @BurntSynapse: Yep, I get what you're saying but I don't think choice of style necessarily depends on finances available. Yes, having less money means you have fewer choices–you probably won't be carrying a different genuine Coach handbag to work everyday on a scientist's salary–but the remaining choices aren't nearly as limiting as the cultural imposition of science.

    For example, I've seen plenty of gangs of impoverished teenagers styled pretty different from the stereotypical scientist. There are choices involved here. And I'm not arguing for one choice over another but instead for freedom of choice, not so constrained by cultural factors. Yes, of course people are free to wear whatever they want, but there are significant penalties for not abiding by the cultural norm.

    At this point, it's no longer about science being unique. But it never really was. Instead, it's an observation that science fits strongly into one cultural choice, which differs from the statement made by many scientists that they don't care about such things as aesthetic choices.

  9. Hi David, I agree that constraints which limit freedoms are best done away with, but hope we maintain awareness that stricter rules of expression, (not *on* expression) enable greater freedom to express. I think of this as analogous to stricter rules of structural engineering provide greater freedom of architectural creativity, or more precise definitions and conceptual clarity enable greater literary expression and scientific insight.
    I often struggle to keep the double-edged nature of structure and freedom in mind when working on scientific creativity.

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