Beauty and wonder of science

Scientists’ ability to experience wonder, awe and beauty in their work is associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and better mental health, finds an international survey of researchers.

Brandon Vaidyanathan, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, and his colleagues collected responses from more than 3,000 scientists — mainly biologists and physicists — in India, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. They asked participants about their job satisfaction and workplace culture, their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of aesthetics in science. The answers revealed that, far from the caricature of scientists as exclusively rational and logical beings, “this beauty stuff is really important”, Vaidyanathan says. “It shapes the practice of science and is associated with all kinds of well-being outcomes.”

Beautiful science: Barchart showing survey results of physicists and biologists on how they encounter beauty in their work.

Source: Work and Well-Being in ScienceSource: The Catholic University of America.

The Work and Well-Being in Science survey found that 75% of respondents encounter beauty in the phenomena that they study (see ‘Beautiful science’), and, for 62%, this had motivated them to pursue a scientific career. Half of those surveyed said that beauty helps them to persevere when they experience difficulty or failure, and for 57%, beauty improves their scientific understanding. “When we experience scientific insight, it triggers the same operation in the brain as musical harmony, and we can take pleasure in this insight just like other art,” says Vaidyanathan.

Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says she was not surprised to see the importance of beauty reflected in the survey — and neither was her physicist husband. “It’s a real driver of scientific enquiry, and makes us feel healthier and happier to experience awe in our day to day work,” she says.

Job satisfaction

Although finding beauty in their work can help scientists to overcome difficulty, many aspects of the job can work against that experience. Dealing with administrative responsibilities, writing grant applications and the pressure to produce papers all get in the way of appreciating the beauty of science, says Vaidyanathan.

The survey found that, overall, scientists reported moderately high levels of well-being, with 72% saying they were mostly or completely satisfied with their jobs. But there were significant disparities. Women reported higher levels of burnout than men, and 25% of postgraduate students reported serious levels of psychological distress, compared with just 2% of senior academics. “Students are in a pretty bad place,” says Dickerson. “And I worry this narrative is being normalized. It shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.”

Vaidyanathan says he did expect to see a difference in mental health between tenured faculty and students — but he didn’t expect it to be so profound. And although the majority of those surveyed seem to be coping with work stress, it is important to pay attention to those who are struggling. “We can’t dismiss those concerns as trivial,” he says.

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