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Dear Grandpa,                

        I have a sister that thinks girls are beautiful and boys are ugly.  I have a friend that thinks flowers are just wrinkly colored things and they aren't pretty.  So I told my dad.  Well, I asked my dad if they were right.  My dad says things are beautiful only if you think they are.  Isn't that like those guys that say a tree falls in the forest and it doesn't make any noise unless someone hears it?  Is something beautiful only if a person thinks it is?  Ok, what do you think?  My name is Peter, but I go by just Pete.


Dear Pete,

What an interesting question!

There are many things that existed long before humans did.  The dinosaurs, for example, were very successful life forms on this Earth, and for many times as long as we humans have existed so far.  They had ears, and they made sounds themselves, so it's reasonable to assume that they heard trees when they fell.  But many things also existed before any living things existed at all.  Are we to assume that the laws of physics just didn't work then?  When a rock fell (there were no trees, of course), did it make a sound wave?

To a physicist, there were waves in the air when a rock fell, even if there were no living thing to hear it, but whether this is "sound" or not depends on if we define sound as a physical phenomenon, or as something that actually has to do with ears and our senses.  The physics was there without anyone to hear, but was that sound?  We might argue that the sound was there because I am now here to comprehend its having happened in the past, to satisfy those folks who put sound in a more or less "psychology" category rather than in the physics category.  These are really two different definitions of sound. One is about us and our perceptions, while the other is about energy and frequencies.

But Beauty - that's even more complicated.  Beauty belongs probably more to the psychologist than to the physicist.  It's not a physical phenomenon.  There's no beauty wave.  There's no particle of beauty.  It doesn't have positive values for each of the dimensions.  I don't know how thick or how wide or long any particular beauty is. I can't measure its temperature or test its hardness. Poets and songwriters try to attach dimensions to beauty - "Your beauty is as tall as the mountain and as deep as the sea."  These metaphors are more like poetry than they are like physics. There's much beauty in physics, and physicists love beauty as much as anyone, but beauty is not a measured physical quantity. It is of the mind.

The Peacock has such wonderful feathers, and it appears that these were developed to attract the female.  Among biological scientists, beauty has its place in the scheme of things - affecting evolution and what all we living things have become.  A biology teacher in high school taught one of Grandpa's sons about the "cuteness" of baby animals.  Evidently, that cuteness helps keep the mother animal's interest while the young ones are dependent on her attention.  This cuteness must be sensed by the sensors of the mother before it can have meaning.

Consider a lone peacock who was blind and who never met a female and was never seen by another living thing - were his feathers still colorful?  That's a tough question. Grandpa would say that he still had feathers, and that they kept him warm, and that they had the frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum representing the colors, but Grandpa is not sure about the colors of those feathers.  Color is something our brain makes of those frequencies, so with no witness, perhaps there is not color, but all the physics is there for color if anyone should come along to see it, and the physics is there whether there is anyone to see it or not. We know what frequencies we see as "green," for example, but "green" does not exist until a brain functions.  

Regarding your sister - who thinks girls are pretty and boys are ugly - give her some time; she's going to change her mind on this one.  She has already begun.  Earlier, she had no opinion regarding a difference between girls and boys - now the boys are "ugly."  She's lying to you, my boy, but she may not be aware of it herself.  If you show her this, and it makes her mad - then you know for sure - she's beginning to be interested. She could catch you, of course, in the same kind of thing, if not now, then in a few more years. 

Your friend who doesn't think flowers are beautiful is probably pulling your leg.  Or it's possible he's trying to "think" his way through what beauty is, when it's more of a thing one "feels."

Look at the roses on this page.  Almost anyone would say they are beautiful.  They are indeed "wrinkly colored things," as your friend describes them.  Some of our perceptions are up to us, and a matter of attitude.  We often think wrinkles are ugly; that's why we iron our clothes.  In a way, it's unfortunate that we have given such definitions to beauty.  Many beautiful things in nature are wrinkled.  If we simply appreciated it more, perhaps we could throw away our irons and save lots of valuable time.  My 87-year-old mother has a wrinkly face.  I look into her face and see great beauty there.

Pete - I think your dad is smart. He said that something is beautiful only if a person thinks it is, and that may be very close to the whole truth on this.  

Grandpa did all that explaining up there so no one would get the idea that this applies to sound and other physical quantities the same as it applies to beauty.  Sound is a measured quantity with energy, a frequency, and an amplitude.  Its energy could be converted into electricity or heat.  Beauty is of the mind.  Its "energy" can't be converted into electricity or heat or any other kind of energy, because it's not energy. We often use metaphors to make language useful and interesting. We speak of the "energy" of love, but we can't get a chair to move by using our love. A thread tied to the chair and pulled would do much better. A hundred people on the other side of the chair trying to love it toward them would lose to your thread. Real energy may be converted into electricity or heat or any other form of energy.

Here's another way to make this clearer.  A sonar on a ship is not a living thing, but it can sense a sound wave and organize information or even an image.  Grandpa cannot imagine a non-living sensor that could recognize beauty.  Boy - that would make a beauty contest easy, wouldn't it?  Just put the sensor up near the contestant and measure the beauty.  It can't be done, because beauty is not a thing that exists, but an idea of a mind or of many minds.  Oh, a sensor could measure the height, for example - and we could have defined beautiful as a certain height - and the sensor could then indicate to us which contestants were the right height and therefore beautiful.  But this sensor is not measuring beauty; it's measuring a length (height).  Length is a physical quantity, and some mind or minds has predetermined that a given height is beautiful and used the sensor to relay his/their opinion.  This particular sensor would indicate that a telephone pole, if the right length, was beautiful.

Above have been discussed three different things.  Beauty.  Color.  Sound.

1. Beauty:  A thing of the mind - not a physical quantity.

2. Color:  It is simply another way of saying frequency.  It has no mass nor energy.  It is not a physical thing, but is the frequency of a physical thing.  It can't exist without the real physical quantity existing also.  That real quantity is light.  Color is not "of the mind," as beauty is, but it's also not a quantity like light.  That's why it's harder for Grandpa to decide if it can exist without the mind.  Light exists, mind or not, but maybe not color, and certainly not beauty.

3. Sound:  It has a frequency and an amplitude and is energy.  It is very clearly a physical quantity.  Sound definitely exists independent of anyone's mind.  A "tone" or a "note" is like a color; it's a frequency of a sound.  A sound wave becomes a tone after it is interpreted by a brain, so it may be reasonable to say that a tone does not come to exist until a sound wave comes to an ear and a brain perceives a tone or a note.

Come to think of it, color can indeed be sensed by a non-living sensor.  That sensor could even send us all the colors of a peacock's feathers with us a hundred miles away and not witnessing anything.  It's because color has a physical nature - a frequency.  So color does exist without a witness.  So does a tone or a note (a sound frequency).  But beauty appears not to.  Beauty is of the mind only.  A sensor could send us a picture of a thing or a person, but we would have to judge the beauty after we received it.


- (The following is an experience of Bryan Borough)

He could not control the paint. As it ran together, he came to realize that the resulting complex beauty was far greater than he could have forced to the canvas. His masterpiece did not come from him; it came from nature, but he saw it and appreciated it, and thus it became beauty.

These 10 beautiful things are a collection of things Grandpa thinks are beautiful.

You may think something else should be on the list - if so - send a picture - and some words if you like.

When your picture comes in, Grandpa will post it.

Ten Beautiful Things in the Universe:

Number 10:     (The Moon)

Number  9:     (A Flower)

Number  8:     (A Homemade Pie)

Number  7:     (A Dog)

Number  6:     (Our Sun)

Number  5:     (The DNA Molecule)

Number  4:     (A Galaxy)

Number  3:     (Our Planet Earth)

Number  2:     (A Happy Child)

Number  1:     (Pictures You Send to Grandpa)


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