The Beauty and Science of Nature

Several years ago a news article titled “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues” caught my attention. According to that article many people suffered from depression, or even suicidal thoughts, after seeing the movie Avatar.

This was not because they disliked the movie. On the contrary, they liked it so much, they now want to live in a world like Pandora rather than on planet Earth. Pandora, the fictitious alien moon portrayed in the movie, has an amazingly beautiful nature, and human-like inhabitants (the Na’vi) living in peaceful harmony with it.

Unlike the Na’vi, humanity as a whole seems to have largely lost its connection with nature. We live in an increasingly urbanized and industrialized society, and are doing a pretty good job at messing up our natural world. This has led to all kinds of problems, both environmentally and socially. Now that is something to get depressed about.

Of course we do have, in principle, the know-how to turn things around. But I believe that scientific and technological solutions alone, no matter how important, are not sufficient. We will not get to the root of the problems unless we change our own attitude towards nature.

Achieving such a change in attitude will largely depend on significantly increasing our collective awareness of the natural world we all live in and depend on. Movies like Avatar can certainly help with this. But there are at least two important things we can all do individually to contribute to such an increased awareness:

  1. develop a stronger appreciation for the natural world around us; and
  2. develop a better understanding of nature, which is also essential for preserving it.

The beauty of nature

Nature displays a wonderful and seemingly infinite beauty and diversity. Having worked and lived all over the world as a “wandering scientist”, I have been able to admire this natural beauty in many different places, and to capture some of it on camera. Sometimes these were big and imposing sights, such as icy glaciers in Chile.

The Balmaceda glacier in Patagonia, Chile.

At other times they were tiny little things, like small sunbirds in Singapore.

An olive-backed sunbird on a spathodea flower in Singapore.

Occasionally there were unexpected encounters, for example with deer in the Dutch sand dunes.

A fallow deer on top of a grassy sand dune in The Netherlands.

And frequently there was something to be enjoyed closer to home or the office, such as sunsets in the southwestern USA.

A beautiful sunset in New Mexico, USA.

Sure, these are not the glowing flowers or floating mountains of Pandora. But to me all of these sights and encounters are equally impressive. Or perhaps even more so, because they are real, and they are here on Earth. The more we pay attention to the beauty that is (still) around us, the more we will learn to appreciate it.

The science of nature

Not only is it a pleasure to admire the natural beauty of this world, but also to try and understand the basic principles and processes that give rise to it. My personal appreciation for nature has increased tremendously from having studied some of its basic principles for many years as a scientist. And sometimes these principles turn out to be surprisingly simple.

We tend to think that complex patterns, structures, and behaviors necessarily need to have complex causes. However, nature seems to be a master at creating complexity and diversity with simple means. In fact, one hallmark of natural systems is that they usually consist of a large number of relatively simple parts, which interact with each other on a local scale, resulting in some larger, global patterns or behaviors to emerge out of these local interactions.

A standard example is neurons in the brain. An individual neuron is, put simply, just a chemical switch. It turns on or off depending on the on/off switching of nearby neurons it is connected to. Yet the brain as a whole is able to perform difficult tasks such as pattern recognition, navigation, and communication.

Another example is ants in an ant colony. Individual ants have a relatively limited set of rules they operate by, but put many of them together and they achieve something much bigger. They build intricate nests, manage to find the shortest path between their home and a food source, and have social structures and division of labor.

Such systems are generally referred to as complex systems. Scientists are still trying to understand better how the global patterns and behaviors emerge out of the local actions and interactions of the (simpler) parts in the system, and how these systems have evolved over time. The sunset picture above was actually taken from the balcony of the Santa Fe Institute, one of the world’s leading research institutes for the study of complex systems. Understanding better how nature “works” will also allow us to better preserve it.

The beauty and science of nature

Based on my many years of experience in both popular science writing and outdoor photography, I wish to stimulate a reconnection with our natural world. For this, I am starting a new article series on the beauty and science of nature, combining engaging popular science stories with eye-catching personal nature photographs. The main aims of this series are:

  1. to foster an increased appreciation for the natural world by showcasing its beauty and providing inspiration to go out and enjoy this ourselves; and
  2. to contribute to a better understanding of nature by explaining some of the science behind it in an easy to understand way, for a non-scientific audience.

I intend to post a new article in this series about every two weeks. So I invite you to join in this entertaining and educational exploration, in a collective effort to beat the Avatar blues.


All photographs © Wim Hordijk
Avatar image downloaded from DesktopBackground.org.

This introduction to the beauty and science of nature series is partly based on an earlier article that appeared in ORBITER magazine.