[ Question ]

What are some beautiful, rationalist artworks?

by jacobjacob2 min read17th Oct 2020115 comments


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So you can now drag-and-drop images into comments. (Thanks, LessWrong dev team!) 

Hence, this post is an excuse to build a beautiful, inspiring, powerful — and primarily visual — comment section. 

Let's celebrate all that is great about the Art of Rationality, with images. 


  • Each answer must contain a picture. No links! 

It should be possible to just scroll through the comments and adore the artwork. There shouldn't be any need to click-through to other pages. (Think of it like a Pinterest board, if you've ever seen those.)

Adding text is fine, but consider doing it in a comment underneath your image, so it can be collapsed.  

  • Pictures should be somehow relate to the Art of Rationality, as practiced on LessWrong. 

Allowed: a breathtaking shot of a SpaceX launch; that solemn shot of Petrov deep in thought, gazing out his window; a painting of Galileo spearheading empiricism against the inquisition, ...

Not allowed: a random pretty mountain; the Mona Lisa; abstract expressionism, ...

I'll be liberal with this condition if you can give a good justification for why you chose your piece. 

  • Pictures should be beautiful art independently of their relation to rationality.

Allowed: an exquisite shot of some piece of elegantly engineered machinery; a richly colourful and swirling galaxy, ...

Not allowed: a random picture of Einstein and Gödel hanging out; a low-resolution photo of a galaxy which is cool because it represents an important advance in astronomy, but which in-and-of-itself just looks like some lame computer graphics; Petrov's own tourist photos, ...

  • Don't be a jerk, but do note if you think something is a major conflict with a virtue. 

Probably goes without saying... but don't be a pretentious art critic. The point of this thread is to pay tribute to those virtues that keep us striving to leave this world in a better place than we found it, guided by the Light of Science. Don't shout over the music. 

That being said, I do care about pictures actually representing rationality. For example, take that photo of the exhausted surgeon after a 23h heart transplant. If it turned out (hypothetical) to have been the result of really poor utilitarian calculations, and actually is in direct conflict with some of our virtues: I think it's important to note that. 


Note: I'm certainly not saying that the above rules are all that rationalist art is about. I'm just going for a particular vision with this comment field. Other posts can enforce other visions. :)


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41 Answers

Self Made Man

Betulaster's image made me think "surely there is a version of this concept that's more polished." Turned out there were several different ones when I googled "self sculpting man". Many of them are sculptures that I suspect work best in person, but I liked this one.

3habryka1yMan, this one is so great. I want to have a statue like this in my garden now.
4Said Achmiz1yImage link seems to be broken. Try this one: https://nitter.net/pic/media%2FEoFhowJVcAAsvM8.jpg%3Fname%3Dorig [https://nitter.net/pic/media%2FEoFhowJVcAAsvM8.jpg%3Fname%3Dorig]
2Raemon1y(If you're me, the image was [probably?] broken because you block twitter during the day. I haven't checked if it's actually broken yet but you might want to doublecheck that if you do any twitterblocking)
3Said Achmiz1yNope, that’s not it

'Earthrise'. Taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

I love the ambience of dark fascination in this one. Tension between horror and curiosity.

From Wikipedia: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a 1768 oil-on-canvas painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, one of a number of candlelit scenes that Wright painted during the 1760s. The painting departed from convention of the time by depicting a scientific subject in the reverential manner formerly reserved for scenes of historical or religious significance. Wright was intimately involved in depicting the Industrial Revolution and the scientific advances of the Enlightenment. While his paintings were recognized as exceptional by his contemporaries... (read more)

5MikkW1yThanks for sharing the picture. I feel like the excerpt you posted from Wikipedia isn't the most important part. While it touches on the artistic significance of the piece, it leaves open many questions about the relevance of the piece as a symbol of rationality. I found the following excerpts from the same article to be more enlightening in this regard:
1fin1yThanks, that's far more relevant!

I feel like photography (and in particular, photographs showing interesting physical systems) is a particularly good fit for "rationalist" artwork. For me, one of the top two or three most fundamental principles of rationality is entangling oneself with the world - living in the real world, and appreciating the real world, rather than escaping into one's own imagination. That's not to say imagination is bad, but rather that the role of imagination is to act on the real world, rather than to live on a separate plane of existence. Let the real world inform o... (read more)

4Ben Pace1yWhat is happening in that photo?
Venus, Earth, Moon, Mars, Titan, I think by this reddit user

Worth noting that these are all photographs. (Some of them are modified, e.g. the earth is added from another picture, and some of them are colorized.)

Neat! This page has more works by the same artist.

Representing existential risks. A lost opportunity to grab the Reachable Universe (edit: /expand through the cosmos). (at least, that's my interpretation)

4MakoYass1yThis would be much stronger if there weren't a surviving human figure (who can somehow afford to feed a horse, no less!) in the scene. I'm not sure this is what extinction risk looks like at all
2Mati_Roy1yI didn't say extinction risk. source: https://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html [https://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html]
4MakoYass1yIt doesn't look like a permanent curtailment if humans are still living and the artifacts of the magic of old are still there to inspire them.
1MikkW1yNot all existential risks are extinction risks- if a disaster can destroy humanity's potential, even without killing every single human, then it would still be an existential risk, which would fit the image

The virtue of scholarship is strong with this one. It makes me want to toil away in a library and have important insights. 

False color radar map of Titan's methane & ethane lakes, ~2007? From footage taken by Cassini. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Agenzia Spaziale Italiana / USGS

This was the version I had saved on my computer, but we actually have a more complete map now. I love this image both by what it represents:

  • Exploring a new world
  • Alien geology
  • Cool maps
  • Including a sense of process (I don't actually know anything about how this image put together, but just looking at it, I'm nearly certain we're looking at a map composited orbits that Cassini took over the source of the planet - like a scanner!)

And from a purely aesthetic perspective:

  • Really simple, strongly contrasting, powerful colors
  • Clean geometry along with the chaotic and organic

Dr. Zbigniew Religa, a Polish cardiac surgeon, and a nurse, both exhausted after a 23-hour heart transplant; the first in Poland's history. (I don't know much about the story beyond that.)

It's a classic and has been featured on various lists of most influential photos. 

To me this photo honors technical mastery, perseverance and the miracle of modern medicine. 

Pale Blue Dot, version 2
5Alex_Altair8moThis is one of the most beautiful images I've ever seen. The optical effects are stunning, and the fact that you can see the entire scope of it, for a planet of inconceivable size, in one view just blows me away. This image feels like the essence of cosmological wonder. It's almost painful to take in.
Rembrandt - The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Art by Nicki (Sofhtie on tumblr). Quote is apparently from the  "Not Another D&D Podcast".

The true patronus was discovered (possibly rediscovered) by Harry Potter, when he finally understood that Dementors represent Death incarnate. His empathetic desire to protect all of humanity from the pain of that loss allowed him to not just drive away the fear of Death, but to conquer Death itself. This caused his Patronus to evolve into its true form; his Patronus took on the shape of an androgynous human. In this form, the Patronus gains additional abilities, including the ability to destroy Dementors and block the "unblockable" curse, Avada Kedavra.

(source: https://hpmor.fandom.com/wiki/Expecto_Patronum)

Tianjin Binhai Library

Are the books that are visible in this picture actual parts of the library's catalogue, intended to be available for reading or borrowing, or are they just there for aesthetics?

(It seems like it must be the latter, for at least some of them.)

5Avi1yApparently it's a third option - most don't actually exist! https://www.mashable.com/2017/11/17/china-binhai-library
8gjm1yOh, that's a bit disappointing. I'll put that in the "just for aesthetics" bucket, then. To me, that makes this feel less like "rationalist art", though I'm not sure how fair that is.

The map that blocks the territory 

I've looked at this across multiple days but only now realised what was happening.

I feel like this one expresses love and the yearning to bring all that is Good and Right out beyond earth. 

Also Solstice is often celebrated in a planetarium. 

The movement of a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002

I chose this photograph because it displays one of the most elegant watch movements ever made. Within this movement there is a perpetual calendar complication. 

A perpetual calendar complication is a calendar feature within a watch that accounts for both short months and leap years. If you own a watch with a perpetual calendar complication, it would only have to be adjusted once every 100 years. 

2NunoSempere1yYou could also have a calendar which doesn't require that adjustment.

Illustration from Michael Haddad for Wired. It was originally commissioned for an article about biohackers, but I find that it captures the spirit of agency and self-improvement that is well-aligned with some of rationalist values. 

2Ben Pace1yI really like this one, thanks.
Lithographic prints of balloon pioneers

I find this a fascinating choice because of how not-rationalist Dr. Manhattan is for much of the novel.

2Raemon8moDo you think he is being rationalist at this particular moment? (I don't actually remember his arc very clearly)
2Alex_Altair8moIt would be hard to say, because he's outside the entire paradigm of being an agent.

A panel from Watchmen which particularly resonated with me.

From Wikipedia, "Vostok was a family of rockets derived from the Soviet R-7 Semyorka ICBM and was designed for the human spaceflight programme. This family of rockets launched the first artificial satellite and the first crewed spacecraft in human history. It was a subset of the R-7 family of rockets."

The Flammarion engraving

What actually is the rationalist significance of this? It looks dope.

4Alex_Altair8moIt's someone peering under the veil of the celestial sphere to gaze at the underlying machinery of nature. It's a common image for depicting science.
4Ben Pace8moOh very cool. (I thought he’d been decapitated.)
Collective Curiosity
Dr. Wernher von Braun, chief architect of the Saturn V program, standing in front of the rocket.
Tobacco plant expressing fluorescent protein

There are more artistic photos of glowing plants around, but this is a relatively early one. Also relevant: biologists have image competitions.

Uncertainty from Vast Space of Possibilities
The School of Athens

This depicts a community of scholarship.

This is from Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia.  It's a children's book full of pictures suggesting logical paradox or infinite sequences.
The Antikythera mechanism
What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett
"Trial of Socrates" - Socrates preferring death instead of changing his stance on "corrupting the youth"
Kind of cliched, but still I really love this pic.
"Two girls sightseeing on a ringworld", by /u/Von_Grechii

I hesitated a little on whether to post this, given that it has been pointed out that the curvature of a ringworld wouldn't actually be that obvious from the inside, so it's in tension with the spirit of rationality to post a picture that depicts something physically impossible.

Still, after almost posting this, then deleting it, then feeling like I wanted to post it anyway, I decided to just do it. As I feel that it captures a combination of joy and love of life co-existing  with, and made possible by, science and rationality.

Harry and Professor Quirrell 

Perhaps not the most beautiful piece of art independent of it's relation to rationality, but I'm a sucker for anything HPMOR. Also check out HPMOR Fan Art.

Piotr Wozniack, inventor of SRS, the algorithm behind Anki

I chose this picture both because I find its composition to be aesthetically striking, and for its portrayal of Piotr Wozniack, in deep thought and ready to jog (an activity which I personally find conducive to great thinking), someone who represents many of the traits I appreciate in a rationalist mind:

Wozniack wanted to learn as much as possible, as efficiently as possible, and ran into fundamental limitations with the capabilities of the human mind, without access to any technology that could help him overcome the barriers he faced. So he did the only r... (read more)

3jacobjacob1y(FYI, I wasn't familiar with SRS and had to Google it.)
16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:11 AM

I have an out-of-print national geographic book called "Inventors and Discoverers" with a bunch of great pieces in it, but I'm having trouble finding good versions of them on the web. A few particular favorites:

Ceramic which won't crack under large temperature gradients - originally a Corning ad
Charles Goodyear, experimenting in his kitchen
Stephenson's Locomotion, racing (and winning) against all comers, on the opening day of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825
Why someone designed a particle accelerator to have discharges like this I do not know, but the visual effect is great.
A young James Watt plays with the steam from the kettle

The mysterious blue glow w/ discharges looks like Cherenkov radiation, even though I'm pretty sure it's just blue lights serving as a backdrop to some high voltage discharge.

Cherenkov radiation in a nuclear reactor at Argonne National Lab

This is basically the most sci-fi thing ever - it's like the visual director of the universe decided that high-energy radiation in water had to glow blue to show the audience that something weird was going on.

Maybe these should be moved into answers, instead of as this comment? (And as separate answers, so people can vote/discuss them separately.)

Alas, these ones don’t work for me.

Same, on phone and they aren't rendering :(

Should be working now.

Yes! These are all great!

  • Pictures should be somehow relate to the Art of Rationality, as practiced on LessWrong. 

Allowed: a breathtaking shot of a SpaceX launch

Not that I would have anything against nice space exploration -themed imagery, but what makes that particularly connected to the art of rationality?

(I really like this post in general though, strong-upvoted.)

Scope sensitivity and the cosmic endowment. I definitely feel like looking at the stars reminds me of how much stuff there is to optimize, which sure feels pretty related to rationality.

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the thing that feels most rationalist-y about SpaceX, which is the exercise of agency against civilizational inadequacy. Elon Musk looked at space travel and was like, 'that seems inadequate, I bet I could do it better.' And everyone said, 'you're crazy, that's impossible.' And Elon Musk didn't listen to them and now SpaceX is a leader in space flight.

I guess the key word here might be "the Art of Rationality, as practiced on LessWrong". I do somewhat resonate with what you describe, but that feels more associated with a specific set of values that's predominant on LW due to a founder effect, rather than an integral part of rationality. So someone could still be rational in the sense that LW conceives rationality, without sharing the values implied by the concept of a cosmic endowment.

(That said, I'm cool with this thread being about that particular aesthetic, rather than rigorously just the art of rationality.)

Hmm, definitely feels core to the art of rationality to me. Like, convergent instrumental goals apply to humans as well. Understanding that just feels straightforwardly useful for the generalized art of rationality.

They certainly apply, but the formulation of the instrumental convergence thesis is very general, e.g. as stated in Bostrom's paper:

Several instrumental values can be identified which are convergent in the sense that their attainment would increase the chances of the agent’s goal being realized for a wide range of final goals and a wide range of situations, implying that these instrumental values are likely to be pursued by many intelligent agents.

That only states that those instrumental values are likely to be pursued by many agents to some extent, depending on how useful they are for fulfilling the ultimate values of the agents. But there's nothing to say that it would be particularly useful for the goals of most humans to pursue them to the point of e.g. advancing space colonization.

Scope sensitivity and the cosmic endowment.

[...] specific set of values that's predominant on LW due to a founder effect [...] this thread being about that particular aesthetic [...]

Noticing that there's lots of matter to do something with is not an aesthetic, it's awareness of a basic drive. While it's technically possible to have a preference that doesn't value things that can be made out of galaxies, it would be shocking if there is a statistically significant number of humans whose correct idealization has that property. I mean, even a paperclip maximizer is not like that.

I think it's important to avoid mixing up the question of values about what should actually happen with the world, and the question of what seems aesthetically pleasing. What habryka referenced and you seem to be responding to are (salient ideas associated with) actual values. But this post's rules state that it's something real that should have power over selection of art, not just aesthetic preference, which makes habryka's appeal to values relevant, where it would be a much weaker argument if we were only discussing aesthetic preference.

While it's technically possible to have a preference that doesn't value things that can be made out of galaxies, it would be shocking if there is a statistically significant number of humans whose correct idealization has that property.

I have pretty broad uncertainty on whether "people's correct idealization" is a useful concept in this kind of a context, and assuming that it is, what those idealizations would value - seems to me like they might incorporate a fair amount of path dependence, with different equally correct idealizations arriving at completely different ultimate outcomes.

which makes habryka's appeal to values relevant, where it would be a much weaker argument if we were only discussing aesthetic preference.

I tend to think that (like identities) aesthetics are something like cached judgements which combine values and strategies for achieving those values.

I have pretty broad uncertainty on whether "people's correct idealization" is a useful concept in this kind of a context, and assuming that it is, what those idealizations would value [...]

Understanding of a concept shouldn't directly depend on whether it's useful, so I think it's an error to entertain the assumption of usefulness. (What use were you considering? Maybe it is relevant in a way I don't see?)

Here, it doesn't matter what stuff people would value (so it isn't relevant that different people value different things or that there is a lot of uncertainty about what people value). The question is whether the total value of the-most-valuable-to-a-given-person stuff, whatever that is, made out of reachable matter is significant (compared to what can be made out of Earth). Do you mean that it's plausible that for a lot of people it isn't actually significant?

That's the question I implicitly posed in the grandparent. It's not clear from your response what you think about it. A point I would agree with is that the question is too vague to have a robust understanding of it, so heuristically it makes sense to only entertain some related considerations while holding off on articulating an answer (in the same spirit as for most stuff pundits are wont to irresponsibly opine about).