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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The World is an Ugly Place

It is impossible to participate in a culture without being constantly aware of how it defines beauty. Maybe America goes a bit overboard with the paparazzi-driven, E! True Hollywood story, US Weekly extravaganza. But no matter which role you play in life, whether you're the high school prom queen, an artsy drama queen, or a duck-and-tuck drag queen, your royalty is to a certain extent dependent upon how you measure up to one notion of beauty or another.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is an abstract concept that is as mercurial as it is vague. It's nearly impossible to pin down what beauty is, but whatever it is now, isn't what it was then, nor what it will be in the future. Trends come and go. Ideals morph from year to year and culture to culture. Nothing is permanent except the impermanence of it all. No man is an island, and therefore, no one can opt out of the cycle. Unless you are completely alone, you must concern yourself with what others think, even if it is so you can specifically rebel against it.

So far, you are probably thinking this rant is aimed at the mindless sheep that are filling the void left by American Idol by droning on about Paris Hilton. I'm not, although it certainly applies to them. No, I am actually addressing the intellectual crowd- those practitioners of skepticism and reason who too often absolve themselves of the sin of pride, lust, and envy. It seems like bespectacled wags from all corners of science use a given definition of beauty to evaluate their craft, and just as in Hollywood, ugly is turned away at the door. In this world, the world of chalkboards and peer review, beauty is synonymous with simplicity. Complicated is inefficient and ugly. Occam's Razor shaves closer than most laypeople would imagine.

But everywhere, this idea of beauty is hitting walls. Particle physicists add more and more cages to their zoo, each built to house a new and unique flavor. Their cousins, the string theorists, find that what was once a Theory of Everything is turning into an infinity of theories, each with no more explanation that others. Biologists find chaos around every corner. Geneticists find that "junk DNA," while it appears to do nothing, may in fact be integral to the process of life. The list goes on. Mathematicians watch smugly from on high, contented with the delusion that they are somehow removed from it all, when in fact they are the worst offenders and it all trickles down from them. They talk of elegance and truth, when what they really want are equations that can fit on a Post-It note and proofs that can fit in the margin of Fermat's notebook. If it's complicated, then there must be something wrong with it. Oh, they'll make do with it for now. If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. But there will always be that nagging feeling that today's pageant winner will one day hand over her crown to a sleeker, thinner mathematical model.

The hard truth is that the world isn't simple, on any scale or in any reference frame. It is complicated, redundant, inefficient, emergent, and mysterious. It will never conform to our ideas of beauty, so we better start conforming to reality. There's nothing ugly about complexity. It is the messiness of it all that provides the foundation for everything we humans hold dear. Regardless of how beauty is defined, the only thing that is consistent seems to be that it always represents the minority. I suggest we (and now I'm talking everyone from all walks of life,) start embracing the ugly that's left, or else we will miss out on the majority of what's worth knowing.

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