science and yoga

Dear Prakasha, Is there any scientific basis to beauty?

Beauty is elusive. So don't expect science, or even yoga, to capture its essence. Beauty is not a thing, something fixed or rigid or that can be possessed or held onto. Rather, I've come to think that beauty is a process, an interaction between a unique object and a unique perceiver that evokes a special kind of delight. This delight – which yogis call rasa – does not depend on any practical end, but instead seems to reach beyond our ordinary world into a realm of intrinsic worth and meaning.

Hiking one day through newly green grass in the hills along the coast of California, I came upon a strangely beautiful rock, full of curves and hollows, and surprisingly narrow ridges that blended with each other in a delightful way. It slowly dawned on me that what I was looking at was a large block of salt that innumerable cows had patiently licked, gradually transforming it from something simple and plain into a beautiful sculpture.

In wondering how cows could create beauty, it occurred to me that it might emerge out of a process of iteration in which the groove left by the tongue of one cow serves to subtly guide and modify the lick of the next cow. The cows had created a coherent pattern of interconnection in the emerging surface, in which the shape of every part depended on the shape of every other part. A similar kind of coherence can be seen in rocks sculpted by the wind or in the beautiful interplay of ripples in a pond after an initially jagged splash has had a chance to reverberate many times. Even a simple mathematical operation – such as taking the square of a complex number and adding a constant – when repeated over and over,gives rise to the infinitely intricate and interconnected whirls and spirals of the Mandelbrot Set

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