05/19/2008 10:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What is Beauty, Anyway?

Richard Feynman will be among the Nobel Prize winners at the World Science Festival this month. In a way.

I'll be doing a reading of QED, the play about Feynman, and as I get ready to step into his life again, I'm hit by a wave of fondness and nostalgia for this person I never met.

I've been reading his words and listening to his voice once more but this time I have an advantage I didn't have when I played him on Broadway a few years ago. Now, with a couple of clicks, I can find him on YouTube. And, one of his clips, I'm surprised to see, brings a catch to my throat.

Feynman is talking about an artist friend who told him that scientists couldn't appreciate the beauty of a flower the way artists could because the scientist takes the flower apart and makes it dull. Feynman is gentle but he thinks this is nutty. "First of all," he says, "the beauty that he sees is available to other people. And to me too, I believe." You have to see the way Feynman says it. His tone is kind, even humble:

But Feynman also talks about how much more the scientist can see than his friend does -- other things that are also beautiful, like the processes deep inside the flower. I can work up a lather myself about this, as I did one night on the Charlie Rose show with Brian Greene and Paul Nurse.

Take a look:

I believe it works both ways. Just as Feynman the scientist could appreciate the beauty of the artist's flower, the rest of us can also revel in the view science gives us of the inside of the flower.

I didn't always understand this. When I was in high school, I fell under the spell of that crazy idea that if you're interested in the arts you can't be interested in science. I heard the romantic poets' siren songs and didn't know that the beauty they saw in a host of golden daffodils was confined to those flowers' thin exteriors. They never dreamed of the infinity of universes beneath the petals.

That's why I've been devoting myself to the World Science Festival. During each day, scientists will talk in plain language to New Yorkers in 20 venues all over the city, and in the evening musicians, dancers and actors will stage performances that are based on science and after which artists, scientists and audiences will join in stimulating discussions. In halls and theaters and even in parks and street fairs, New York will have a chance to watch beauty bloom.

What is beauty, anyway? It's more than something pleasant looking. If it doesn't stop us in our tracks and make us unable to move for a moment, unable to put into words what's closing off the breath in our throats, then maybe it's pretty, but it probably isn't beauty.

Science, though, is beauty.

And I think the World Science Festival will take our breath away.