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Beauty at Work

An interview with Brandon Vaidyanathan about his “Beauty at Work” podcast.

Brandon’s podcast “Beauty at Work” examines how beauty shapes our personal and social lives. As a sociologist, Brandon is interested in discovering how beauty is relevant to all of life – science, food, work, justice, education, etc. His research team produced the first empirical study of aesthetics in science, surveying over 3,000 scientists and conducting more than 200 interviews in 4 countries.

This research inspired the theme for the first season of his podcast: beauty in science. He has interviewed people across many disciplines, including physics, immunology, mathematics, psychology, epidemiology, neurology, among others. In his many conversations, Brandon found it particularly interesting that one can even speak of being wrong (having a failed experiment, for example) as something beautiful, because it allows her to learn something new and to take a step in your search for the truth. He sees in these scientists witnesses of people who value something more than their own opinion and thinks that we can all benefit from cultivating this kind of aesthetic of understanding. Here, we asked him to tell us more about himself and the Beauty at Work podcast.

Brandon, first, can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you encounter Communion and Liberation? What made you want to study and now teach sociology?

I'm relatively new to DC; I’ve been living here since 2017. I grew up in several countries; I spent most of my childhood in the Arabian Gulf, and became a Catholic in Dubai about 25 years ago. I first came across CL in Canada, when I stumbled upon At the Origin of the Christian Claim at a conference bookstall, and I found it really intriguing. I read it several times before I contacted the website to learn more about the movement. John Zucchi got in touch with me and we became good friends, and that’s how I became connected to the movement.

As to what drew me to sociology – I had never heard of the word until I started college, which was right after my conversion to Catholicism. When I started, I thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, like many Indians who move to North America. But because of my conversion, I found myself rethinking a lot of things, including what I had taken for granted about what I should study and what kind of job I should pursue. Many people that I had grown up with would talk about work as just a necessary evil and a means to an end, but I really wanted to understand the prospects for meaningful work. So I started doing research on the meaningfulness of work, particularly on how people make sense of the changing nature of work in the context of rapid economic development like the places where I grew up, which were India and the Arabian Gulf. That led me to realize that I had to use sociological methods to understand what modernity was, how it was impacting people, how people were making sense of the structural and cultural changes that were brought about by rapid economic development. That's essentially what led me to become a sociologist.

Your podcast is called "Beauty at Work". What is 'beauty'?

Beauty is notoriously hard to define. Philosophers have been trying for centuries, and I’m not going to pretend I can do much better. Perhaps a simple way to put it would be that beauty is the attractive power of reality. We tend to find beauty in that which we find admirable, that which pulls us out of ourselves, that which we find deeply satisfying. We tend to associate beauty with proportionality, a sense of fit, harmony, a sense of unity in diversity. And there’s more simple or trivial kinds of beauty as well as more profound experiences of the sublime. So that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

And what, specifically, do you think it has to do with work?

We don’t usually use the word ‘beauty’ when we think of work. I don’t think I did until I started studying scientists and talking to them opened my eyes to things I hadn’t paid attention to before.

So now in my podcast and YouTube channel and in salon dinner discussions I’m organizing, I’m trying to understand what beauty has to do with various fields of work. And I want to draw out what beauty means to people in these different fields – both similarities as well as unique and distinctive elements, and ways in which beauty can be helpful as well as deceptive or misleading.

What is a “salon dinner discussion”?

The dinners bring together small groups of about a dozen people from diverse backgrounds (different professional, religious, and ethnic backgrounds) around a meal. The discussion is a single conversation around the table where we share experiences of where we have encountered beauty in our lives, from our childhoods to our workplaces. The conversations have been helpful in identifying the wide range of ways in which we can encounter beauty but also the patterns that are common to our experience despite our differences. I have found that these moments provoke profound connections and transformation for many, including myself.

It is interesting that this first season of the podcast is focusing on beauty in science. Why did you choose to focus on science?

I started this project because a few years ago, I was studying scientists as part of a large international project on what scientists thought about religion. Our team was doing hundreds of interviews, and many scientists told us they had made enormous sacrifices for the sake of their work – sacrificing their health and their family and lucrative careers for the sake of doing fundamental research. And the reason many of them said they were doing this was because they found this work beautiful.

I was really surprised by their use of the word “beautiful”. Beauty was not a word I would have associated with science before I talked to these scientists. And I wanted to understand what it meant to them.

And as I started to spend time with these scientists, I learned that beauty means different things in different fields: physicists associate it with simplicity and biologists find beauty in complexity. But both share in common what we call the beauty of understanding – the deep sense of satisfaction you experience when you gain insight into how some piece of reality works. Our research also showed that beauty can be misleading and can derail the scientific quest. For example: when you are convinced an equation is so beautiful it must be true, even if no data can support it. Yet encountering beauty in work is also associated with better mental health and overall well-being.

What has been most surprising to you in doing this work?

In talking to scientists, I was surprised at how universally they associated beauty with understanding: discovering the hidden order or inner logic of systems, the thrill of a new insight that revealed to them some new aspect of how reality works. So it seems that for scientists, science is a quest for beauty.

In my salon dinner events, I was surprised by how quickly people connected by sharing stories of where they encountered beauty in their childhoods. Sharing such stories of beauty can be disarming and can help us connect with each other very quickly. I think we are starved for genuine, meaningful connections, especially post-pandemic, and beauty can be a powerful catalyst.

Do you have an idea of a theme for the next season of the podcast?

I think the next season might focus on beauty in hospitality. I’ve already made some short films about cocktail bar owners and chefs, and recently conducted some interviews in Italy for short films on Cometa and Famiglie Per L’Accoglienza. Stay tuned to see how it develops.