Cultural Heritage – Beautiful Questions

1811-5209/16/0012-$0.00 DOI: 10.2113/gselements.12.1.5

Nobel Prize–winner Frank Wilczek’s new book A Beautiful Question (2015) is a contemplation on the natural beauty of the universe and how scientists and philosophers, as far back as the ancient Greeks of Pythagoras and Plato, have asked questions about the underlying symmetry that exists in nature. Wilczek calls discovering underlying symmetries “finding Nature’s deep design,” and he develops the theme to include very modern questions of science.

A classic example of this deep design can be seen in the five Platonic Solids, which Wilczek terms “objects to conjure with” (FIG. 1). How did Plato, after whom these solids are named, and the other Greek thinkers, discover them, just from thinking? These shapes are, after all, the only five ways to put together identical regular polygons in three dimensions! The implications of this discovery have permeated science and philosophy ever since, and the “beautiful question” is why is this so?

A more recent example is chemistry Nobel Prize–winner Linus Pauling’s thinking about the structure of DNA. Pauling proposed that DNA had a triple helix structure (Scitable 2014; see coil model shown in FIG. 2). Pauling’s conjecture led to James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA’s true double helix structure using modern X-ray diffraction techniques. But it was Pauling’s beautiful question that, to a significant degree, led to the truth being found.

This leads on to cultural heritage. I use the term “cultural heritage” to include the efforts of scientists to understand the universe and to discover new applications and uses of materials. Within this scope is the connection between science and art because it is art that helps describe the beauty in (and of) nature. An example of this connection is shown in FIGURE 3, which is The Sacrament of the Last Supper painted by Salvador Dali in 1955. Wilczek (2015) states that “the sacrament unfolds within a dodecahedron”.

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An even more modern connection between science and art has been made by Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Stanford, California, USA). Archimedes (287–212 BC) was a Greek mathematician and philosopher who is thought to have used the word “Eureka” when making a profound discovery. Copies of at least seven of Archimedes’ treatises— Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and Stomachion —can be found in a medieval Byzantine Prayer Book known today as the “Archimedes Palimpsest”. In order to create this prayer book, the medieval scribe had used parchment from which earlier writings (such as the Archimedes treatises) had been scraped “clean” and then painted over for another use. This recycled parchment contains remnants of this earlier text. Dr. Bergmann, using synchrotron radiation, was able to read the writing under the paint overcoat, allowing us to see, for the first time in some instances, this lost codex of Archimedes (FIG. 4; Davidson 2005). Dr. Bergmann’s novel use of synchrotron X-rays continues: he is currently working to resurrect a 200-year-old aria by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini (Sumner 2013). Bergmann’s discoveries show how progress in understanding our cultural heritage is flourishing.

There are many interesting examples of ancient discoveries in materials, art, and medicines. For example, for hundreds of years, people in what is now the desert southwest border region of the United States and Mexico have been using the creosote bush (Spanish: Gobenadora; Larrea tridentata; FIG. 5) for medicinal purposes. Colleagues and I questioned the inhabitants in this region about the uses of creosote bush, asking them, “What did your grandmother tell you regarding Gobenadora”. Over 20 people indicated they were told how this plant was often made into a tea that was used for many applications, including kidney stone prevention and prevention of cancers (Chianelli 2012, pers. comm.). At the time, there was little scientific evidence in the literature that this cure actually worked. However, subsequent research did indeed demonstrate that creosote tea could suppress the growth of calcium oxalate kidney stones (Pinales et al. 2011).

One final example is an artifact that prompted a beautiful question and a practical answer. The ancient Japanese Samurai sword is known as the katana. Although they are now valuable relics in many museums and collections, for over 1,500 years the katana dominated Japanese history and cultural heritage, the Samurai using it to defend their nation in civil wars and invasions. But... how did the Japanese learn to make this formidable weapon, which was not only incredibly sharp and but was also flexible? Recent studies are examining this question and are yielding new insights about the swordsmiths and how they made these swords (Matsumoto et al. 2010). The whole story is beautifully presented in a YouTube presentation (Raimundo 2012).

All of the examples above reflect the exciting information contained in the study of cultural heritage and of how scientists thought in the past and will continue to address the Beautiful Question in the future.


Chianelli RR (2012) Personal Communication, “M emories of Indigenous Medicinal Use of Creosote, for Suppression of Kidney Stones”. The Gobenadora Larrea tridentate. Available on request.

Davidson K (2005) Stanford lab reveals hidden writing on ancient parchment / Scientists analyze Archimedes text at accelerator center. SFGate, http://www.sfgate. com/bayarea/article/Stanford- lab-reveals-hidden-writing-on- ancient-2668638.php. Accessed 1/16/2016

Matsumoto C and 5 coauthors (2010) Characteristics of Japanese sword produced from tatara steel. Journal of Alloys and Compounds 577(Supplement 1): S673-S677

Pinales LA and 5 coauthors (2011) Spectroscopic study of calcium oxalate calculi growth inhibition by Larrea tridentata. Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 42: 259-264

Raimundo J (2012) Forging a Katana (Japanese Samurai Sword). YouTube. Nov. 27, 2012. Accessed 1/16/2016

Suitable (2014) Linus Pauling: A Lifetime of Science. Suitable by Nature EDUCATION, http://www. linus-pauling-a-lifetime-of-sci- ence-6539763. Accessed 1/16/2016

Sumner T (2013) SLAC X-rays resur- rect 200-year-old lost aria. Stanford Report, June 10, 2013. http://news. music-xray-061013.html. Accessed 1/16/2016

Wilczek F (2015) A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design. Penguin Press, New York, 448 pp

Woods HR (2005) Placed under X-ray gaze, Archimedes manuscript yields secrets lost to time. Stanford Report, May 19, 2005. http://news. archimedes-052505.html. Accessed 1/16/2016