Aesthetics as Guide

Glechoma hederacea, Stadhuis Museum Zierikzee, NLD

In the last post, I discussed a number of studies that found biases in plant collecting based on a plant’s size, form, and color.  These are considered aesthetic selections, not grounded in objective properties such as a plant’s rarity or conservation status.  While bias can weaken a study’s findings and should be guarded against, I don’t think aesthetics can be totally eliminated from collecting, nor should it be.  There is a lot more to the aesthetics of collecting than just which plants are selected.  First, there is the overall experience of being outdoors, surrounded by plants and moving through a landscape.  The exhilaration of walking in an unfamiliar area or the comfort of a familiar one.  For most botanists, collecting is a scientifically and personally important part of their lives.  It can engage all the senses including the kinesthetic.  Pulling a plant up by its roots, selecting branches to cut, and then wrestling these into plastic bags or between pieces of newspaper involve many sensations and movements all at once.  At least for some plants, this is the most difficult and sensorial part of collecting—with scents and sounds abounding.  Many plants do not readily become two dimensional.  It can be a challenge, especially for a spiny species.   The work is going on as the brain is absorbing information and organizing it for identification.  This is definitely an experience in John Dewey’s (1934) sense of the word, where mind and body are involved working as one. 

            Phenomenology is the analysis of experience, becoming aware of what is going on while doing or sensing something.  It is, in the jargon of today, being mindful and realizing just how much is involved, appreciating the richness of a moment:  feelings as well as thoughts.  In other words, phenomenological analysis helps us appreciate the aesthetic aspects of life and is one reason why it is a popular philosophical tradition among artists, and perhaps it should be used more by scientists.  Some are much more aware of the aesthetic aspects of their work than others.  Years ago, the biochemist Arthur Kornberg (1989) wrote a memoir called For the Love of Enzymes describing the joys of his work.  The chemist Roald Hoffmann published a series of articles (1988-1989) on what makes molecules attractive after his wife asked him to explain why he called a chemical structure “beautiful.”  Both these men won Nobel Prizes, so their interest in the aesthetic is significant, especially because they chose to share this side of science with nonscientists.

              Another chemist whose writings are relevant here is Michael Polanyi (1966) who developed the concept of tacit knowledge, the mind and body work so closely that it’s impossible to put the experience into words.  Driving a car is one example, and expertly processing specimens is another.  Someone can explain these activities, but there is so much physical as well as mental work entailed that they can only be learned by doing.  Because mind and body are acting together, feelings are intimately integrated in pressing specimens and even more in mounting them.  The issue is how to take the material that has already been pressed and arrange it as attractively as possible, while not having too much overlap among parts, making sure both sides of leaves are visible, and displaying flowers with as much information as possible apparent.  However, there are limits to what a preparator can do with pressed material, which is why care in the field is essential. 

One problem with aesthetic considerations is that by their nature they are difficult to verbalize.  They are tacit; you know a beautiful specimen when you see it.  Many times I’ve come across descriptions of collections in which the superior quality of the specimens is mentioned.  This usually means that they are not skimpy, but at the same time they don’t look like unruly hairdos on the sheet.  Also labels and barcodes are not askew, a sign of hasty preparation.  These elements are noted.  The preparators at New York Botanical Gardens would comment on “certain people” who weren’t careful about the barcodes, thus taking away from the overall appearance of the sheet.  The same care needs to be taken with fragment envelopes and determination slips, as well as sketches and other notes that might be included.  A herbarium sheet can involve quite a few elements.  Their arrangement can make a difference not only in how good it looks, but in how easy it is to “read” or make sense of the elements.  The objective and subjective can’t be separated.

Every herbarium curator has favorite specimens taken out to show on group tours or for a visiting researcher.  Usually these include at least one particularly striking sheet, perhaps with a flower that has kept its color or a beautifully draped vine or a well-pressed orchid.  This is all about visual aesthetics.  But there are other kinds of aesthetic choices made, as in selecting sheets that have good stories related to them: a specimen collected by Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first voyage around the world or by Charles Darwin or by Margaret Gatty at the seashore in Britain.  Here history and science are rolled into one in a way that can be memorable and exciting to the viewers.  This is definitely part of the aesthetic aspect of botany for both botanists and the general public. 


Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch.

Hoffmann, R. (1988a). Molecular beauty. American Scientist, 76, 389–391.

Hoffmann, R. (1988b). Molecular beauty II: Frogs about to be kissed. American Scientist, 76, 604–605.

Hoffmann, R. (1989a). Molecular beauty III: As rich as need be. American Scientist, 77, 177–178.

Hoffmann, R. (1989b). Molecular beauty IV: Toward an aesthetic theory of six-coordinate carbon. American Scientist, 77, 330–332.

Kornberg, A. (1989). For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2 thoughts on “Aesthetics as Guide

  1. Pingback: Aesthetics of Doing Botany | Herbarium World

  2. Pingback: Aesthetics of Communication | Herbarium World

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