The beauty of nature and the nature of beauty

Michael Baum
London, England (Winter 2018)

 

Fig. 1 The Death of Procris, A Satyr mourning over a Nymph, Piero di Cosimo, (c. 1495)

 

Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy? / There was an awful rainbow once in heaven: / We know her woof, her texture; she is given / In the dull catalogue of common things. / Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine— / Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made / The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade — “Lamia” by John Keats 1820

 

Fig 2. Isaac Newton by William Blake (1795–1805)

The verse above is an extract from Keats’ epic poem Lamia, the serpent-turned-woman. The poem is based on a Greek myth, but may also be taken as a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden that encouraged Eve to seduce Adam into taking a bite from the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge” in the first chapter of Genesis. It is also a sideswipe at Sir Isaac Newton for “unweaving the rainbow,” perhaps an allusion to the eureka moment when Newton observed an apple dropping from a tree in his orchard. One assumes that Keats regrets that mankind was cursed with the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Sadly he died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, his mother having also died of this scourge when he was fourteen.

About 125 years after Keats’ death from tuberculosis, scientists at the Medical Research Council discovered streptomycin. Since then tuberculosis has been considered a curable disease.1 “Consumption” no longer consumes romantic poets like Keats, graphic artists like Aubrey Beardsley, Botticelli’s model Simonetta Vespucci, or the fictional heroines of grand opera such as Mimi and Violeta, all of whom died before the age of thirty. The world is a better place for this small mercy.

Keats’ attack on Newton was at least nuanced and elliptical, whereas William Blake’s attack was full frontal. In one of his large color prints completed in 1802, he shows Newton naked at the bottom of the sea measuring the world with compasses and accompanied by a diatribe that contained the phrase, “Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.” (Figure 2).

Richard Dawkins wrote a whole book defending science against these romantics entitled Unweaving the Rainbow.2 Dawkins wrote his book from the viewpoint of a scientist and a world authority on the mechanisms that allow for evolution.  In contrast, although a clinical scientist by training, I support Dawkins’ position, but from the viewpoint of an artist.

Fig 3. The Ugly Duchess (c. 1513)

After I retired as a professor of surgery, I acquired the title of visiting professor in medical humanities and taught medical undergraduates about the role of ethics, philosophy, and the performing arts in the practice of medicine. With more time available to indulge my other interests, I apprenticed myself to a successful portrait painter, as well as joining art school. I have always drawn since my school days, but learning the tricks of the trade as both a graphic artist and painter opened my eyes to the wonders of fine art. I often pay homage to great artists before delivering scientific papers in cities around the world. A visit to Amsterdam would involve a side-visit to the Rijksmuseum to view Rembrandt’s Night Watch or to the Van Gough museum to admire his cherry blossom trees. A visit to New York to attend a symposium at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute would never be complete without a long stroll up 5th Avenue to check out the Vermeers at the Frick or the impressionists at the Met. And if “playing at home” there are also the treasure houses in London that include the National Gallery, the Tate, both Britain and Modern, the Courtauld in Somerset House, and the Wallace collection in the West End.

I have learned to paint with the classic technique that involves a ground color of dark sepia tones, highlights and shadows with titanium white and burnt umber, a first glaze with transparent gold ochre, painting wet on wet for the detail and color, a second glaze in transparent paint of all hues, and a finishing flourish of impasto for the highlights.

I understand composition, perspective, the disc of complementary colors, and the esoterica of decoding the iconography hidden away in the shadows. The primary colors of the rainbow are seen through the choice of pigment rather than the refraction of white light in raindrops. Finally, I fully understand the central importance of the “golden ratio” (j) in the making and framing of art. I therefore have learned the methods of making art and the connoisseurs’ way of interpreting art. That alone does not make me a great nor even a good artist; but I am also not a Philistine. My pleasure in viewing fine art is amplified manifold.

Moreover, I have reason to believe that a clinical scientist can have an important role in interpreting and decoding great works of art from the golden age of the Renaissance. In the years I was involved with the curriculum of medical humanities, I would always take a new tutorial group on a “medical ward round” at the National Gallery. During these sessions, some of my students made important observations and deductions that reinterpreted some famous works that had been overlooked by the curators. For example, one bright student performed a forensic pathological examination on the cadaver of the dead nymph in Piero Di Cosimo’s painting thought to be an illustration of Ovid’s poem Cephalus and Procris. (Figure 1) Her observations confirmed that death was murder by person or persons unknown rather than a hunting accident. Another student diagnosed Paget’s disease of the skull in Quentin Massy’s Ugly Duchess. (Figure 3) Finally as a group effort, we diagnosed tabes dorsalis in the putto presenting flowers to Venus in Bronzino’s Allegory of sacred and profane love. (Figure 4).

Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time (or allegory of sacred and profane love), Agnolo Bronzino, (c. 1545)

Some years ago, I experienced an epiphany walking past a secluded pond on Hampstead Heath in late August. The pond was covered with green algae and randomly dappled with sunlight breaking through the green canopy of the overhanging trees. A family of mallard ducks appeared to be grazing on the algae by paddling along with the lower beak of the duckbill just below the surface of the water, scooping up the green scum. A switch in my brain triggered a transition from eighteenth-century romantic poet to Victorian natural scientist. I saw the green pond and the green canopy as solar panels, converting the sun’s rays into energy by the process of photosynthesis. This allowed the algae to spread across the pond in a matter of weeks and the trees to grow another foot in a matter of years; two very different life cycles. The ducks were feeding on the algae and in turn, by the process of oxidative phosphorylation, turned the energy supply into building protein. The ducks’ life cycle was somewhere between the algae and the oak, unless cut short in the preparation of crispy duck pancakes at our favorite Chinese restaurant. Last of all, I realized that the dappling of sunlight on the surface of the pond was not random but the consequence of the oblique rays finding gaps in the canopy of trees that had near perfect fractal geometry.

If you could look down on these trees by the Hampstead pond from a low flying aircraft you would see a canopy of leaves packed as tightly as the seeds in the head of a sunflower. This miracle of nature is achieved by the combination of lateral fractal geometry combined with the spiral arrangements of the branches coming off the main trunk and secondary branches, obeying the mathematical law of 1/j. This arrangement is the clear expression of an evolutionary advantage for trees in temperate zones to maximize the surface area exposed to sunlight. This also facilitates transpiration, as water is sucked up by the roots of the tree and evaporates from the leaves. The roots themselves provide a mirror image of the geometry above ground, evolution discovering the most efficient surface area for absorbing moisture from the rich soil beneath.

The division between our two cultures, art and science, is artificial and probably a creation of reactionary romanticists at the time of the birth of the Age of Enlightenment.  From my standpoint I claim that scientists, should they put their mind to it, can understand and appreciate the awesome beauty of the natural world in a way denied to Keats and Blake.

Teaching our students to understand the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty would make them both better scientists and better clinicians.

 

References

  1. MRC Streptomycin in Tuberculosis Trials Committee. Streptomycin treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. 1948;2:769–83.
  2. Dawkins R. Unweaving the Rainbow, Publisher Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998

 


 

MICHAEL BAUM, MB, FRCS, ChM, MD, qualified in medicine from the at Birmingham University medical school in 1960. He has held chairs of surgery at Kings College London, the Institute of Cancer Research, and University College London. Past President of the British Oncology Association and chairman of the psychosocial committee of the National Cancer Research Institute, he has also been awarded the William McGuire prize at San Antonio, Texas and the gold medal of the International College of Surgeons for his research into the treatment of breast cancer. On retiring as a professor of surgery, he has spent the rest of his career teaching and promoting medical humanities.

 

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