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Scientific Beauty, Sublime and Awe

Applicant Kozlov Anatolii
Number 196500
Funding scheme Spark
Research institution
Institution of higher education University of Geneva - GE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.12.2020 - 28.02.2022
Approved amount 81'347.00
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All Disciplines (5)

Molecular Biology
Cellular Biology, Cytology

Keywords (6)

Epistemology; Sociology of Science; Chronobiology; Scientific Sublime; Aesthetics; Philosophy of science

Lay Summary (French)

Les scientifiques font souvent appel à la beauté lorsqu'ils expliquent leur préférence pour un certain phénomène, méthode, hypothèse ou modèle. Existe-t-il un lien intrinsèque entre la beauté et la connaissance «scientifique»? Et l'autre expérience esthétique - sublime - fait-il également partie de la boîte à outils «cognitive» du scientifique? Ces questions ne font que maintenant l'objet de la philosophie des sciences. Le projet actuel les aborde avec trois méthodologies différentes.
Lay summary

Contenu et objectifs du travail de recherche

Traditionnellement, la science est comprise comme une activité rationnelle et les émotions sont des obstacles à la pensée scientifique. En même temps, les scientifiques eux-mêmes font souvent appel aux valeurs esthétiques dans leur travail, que ce soit une belle théorie ou une méthode. Les expériences esthétiques se manifestent par des émotions, ce qui pose une contradiction évidente. Étonnamment, les qualités esthétiques sont souvent attribuées aux résultats scientifiques les plus réussis.

Ce projet vise à construire une feuille de route descriptive des expériences émotionnelles, en utilisant la chronobiologie, une étude de l'horloge biologique, comme cas. Trois méthodologies seront utilisées: une analyse des récits autobiographiques de scientifiques éminents; enquête sociologique sur des chercheurs actuellement actifs; et des entretiens semi-structurés avec des scientifiques du domaine de la chronobiologie.

La feuille de route descriptive sera une base pour l'analyse du rôle des expériences esthétiques en science. Il sera axé sur la beauté et autres expériences esthétiques en science, par exemple, les expériences de sublime et d’awe.

Contexte scientifique et social du projet de recherche

Le projet actuel vise à élargir la discussion sur la signification des expériences esthétiques en science. Il combine l'acquisition de données et analyse philosophique, appartient ainsi au domaine émergent de la philosophie expérimentale. Toutefois, le projet a une composante sociale. Des rapports récents suggèrent une situation inquiétant en santé mentale des doctorants dans les établissements universitaires. Reconnaître le rôle constructif des émotions dans le processus scientifique pourrait contribuer à l'amélioration du climat mental.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 30.10.2020

Lay Summary (English)

Scientists often appeal to beauty when explaining their preference for a certain phenomenon, method, hypothesis, or model. Is there an intrinsic link between ‘scientific’ beauty and knowledge? And is the other aesthetic experience - sublime - also part of scientist’s ‘cognitive’ toolkit? These questions are only now entering the focus of philosophy of science. The current project addresses them with three different methodologies.
Lay summary

Aims of the research project

Traditionally, science is understood as a rational activity and emotions are obstacles for scientific thinking. At the same time scientists themselves often appeal to aesthetics values in their work, be it a beautiful theory or experiment. Aesthetic experiences manifest themselves through emotions, which poses an obvious contradiction. Even more intriguing, aesthetic qualities are often attributed to the most successful scientific results.

This project aims to build a descriptive roadmap of emotional experiences, using chronobiology, a study of the biological clock, as a case. This roadmap will be built using three methodologies: a textual analysis of autobiographical accounts from prominent scientific figures; anonymised sociological survey on presently active researchers; and semi-structured interviews with preselected scientists from the field of chronobiology. 

This roadmap will be a basis for the analysis of the role of aesthetic experiences in science. Because of its descriptive nature, it will not be solely focused on the experience of beauty, and is likely give an account of other aesthetic experiences in science, for example, the experiences of sublime and awe. 

Scientific and societal context of the research project

Present project aims at broadening the discussion on the meaning of aesthetic experiences in science. It combines data acquisition and philosophical analysis, thus belongs to the emerging field of experimental philosophy. However, the project has a social component. Recent reports suggest a worrying mental health situation of graduate students in academic institutions. Recognising constructive role of emotions within the scientific process might contribute to the improvement of the mental climate.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 30.10.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants



Emotions in Experimental Research (Draft)

Author Kozlov, Anatolii
Publication date 01.03.2022
Persistent Identifier (PID)
Repository Harvard Dataverse


Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
Michael T. Stuart Taiwan (Asia)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Lake Geneva Biological Interest Group Individual talk Theoretical Objects and Non-Perceptual Art 08.03.2022 UNIGE, Switzerland Kozlov Anatolii;
Philosophy and Science Symposium at the Section of Biology 2021 (UNIGE) Talk given at a conference Emotions in Scientific Experimental Research 10.12.2021 Geneva, Switzerland Kozlov Anatolii;
Lake Geneva Biological Interest Group Individual talk Learning from models is not make-believing 26.10.2021 University of Geneva, Switzerland Kozlov Anatolii;
The 8th Congress of the Society for the Philosophy of Science Talk given at a conference Experimental Reports in Biology are Modernist Stories 08.09.2021 University of Mons, Belgium Kozlov Anatolii;
Geneva Aesthetics of Science Workshop Talk given at a conference What one Discovers Pretending to be a Molecule? 21.07.2021 Geneva, Switzerland Kozlov Anatolii;
Lake Geneva Biological Interest Group Individual talk Scientific Articles are Modernist Stories 30.03.2021 University of Geneva, Switzerland Kozlov Anatolii;


Title Date Place
Philosophy and Science Symposium at the Section of Biology 2021 (UNIGE) 10.12.2021 University of Geneva (Online and in person), Switzerland
Geneva Aesthetics of Science Workshop 21.07.2021 Geneva (online), Switzerland

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) Pretense and Mental Imagery Junkyard of Mind Scholarly Blog International 2021


When we talk about aesthetic values, experiences or judgements in science we commonly refer to the idea of beauty, whereas the idea of sublime is usually overlooked. While the sense of beauty is delightful and comforting, sublime is an overwhelming simultaneous feeling of admiration and awe, elation and terror. It is said that such feeling arises when we encounter something so incomprehensibly vast that we cannot accommodate it in our feelings, and it makes us to question our place in the universe. Most frequently the feeling of sublime is attributed to encounters of nature’s grand phenomena, such as waterfalls, mountains or tornados. But it seems very plausible that nature in the lab can equally trigger a feeling of sublime. In favour of that speak personal accounts of prominent scientists, such as Einstein, Feynman, Goud, Jacob, Benzer. The way they speak about certain aspects of their science, such as the sense of discovery, strongly suggest the existence of sublime experience in science.Acknowledging this, the question is what is the role of sublime in science? Is it just a poetic sensibility of some prominent scientists or it is a feeling that accompanies every researcher? Does it have any value in producing new knowledge? And is there an inherent link between aesthetic feelings and successful scientific endeavour?Favouring the idea of aesthetic pluralism in science, this project puts scientific sublime in line with scientific beauty and aims to produce a first broad taxonomy of scientific aesthetics. This taxonomy would seek to map aesthetic values in onto different stages of scientific process - exploration, discovery, and justification - and onto different technical aspects of science: objects, products, and practices. In order to bridge the gap between the ‘star’ scientists and everyday research a two-fold approach is taken. Firstly, an in-depth literature analysis is undertaken in search for expressions of aesthetically-related feelings attributed to scientific puzzles, instruments and products scattered here or there in personal accounts of prominent figures in the field of chronobiology. The systematic study of circadian (daily) rhythms commenced in the beginning of the 20th century and went through several conceptual and technical shifts having its ecological, quantitative, genetic, molecular, and neuroscientific phases, which give us the possibility to fish out many species of sublime and beautiful under the umbrella of a phenomenon that is omnipresent across taxa and unifies several different branches of biology, chemistry and physics.The second approach goes through engagement with researchers at local research institutions in order to gather evidences of aesthetic attributions in on-going scientific research. This will be done in the form of a sociological survey and phenomenological analysis. The acquired taxonomy of scientific aesthetics is conceptually analysed in terms of epistemology, cognitive sciences, sociology and aesthetics of science. The results of this study are going to be submitted for publication in journals for philosophy of science and cognitive science. This study aims to be a contribution for philosophical, sociological and cognitive scientific debates on the epistemic and aesthetic role of emotions and it is extremely important for the reflection on the present-day scientific practices.