Great topic, thanks!!!
I find lots of things beautiful in nature. I am drawn mostly to beauty in the biological world and in the geological world. In the biological world, I see beauty in things that were designed for that purpose: ornamentation in plants and animals, of the kind that is designed to attract other animals (mates and/or pollinators). This to me is the kind of beauty that seems to serve no purpose, and is different from pattern and design. Flowers, colors, etc. There are some jaw-dropping images and descriptions of beauty in birds, and these are the main topic of a recent very interesting book (The Evolution of Beauty) by Richard Prum that specifically puts beauty at the center of thought about evolution. His emphasis in that book is controversial and even tedious but the universe of beauty in birds is astounding.
But I am also drawn to both “design” (especially protein nanomachines like voltage-gated ion channels and ATP synthase) and to grand visions of biology and geology, such as tree-covered mountains that unfold one ecosystem after another as you ascend them. Being a biologist has significantly heightened my enjoyment of these things, and it takes effort for me to resist the impulse to babble ecstatically about “sky islands” and evolution when my car-mates just want to enjoy the view.
For some reason I am less drawn to regular pattern and to symmetry. Probably a personality defect.
This most definitely makes my career more enjoyable. All day, my work is about the biological world. I do know how very lucky I am.
Much of the beauty that I see day-to-day is a collaboration between human minds and the creative power of the universe. Specifically, I find images of brain circuits to be among the most beautiful things I see in my work. But these images are enhancements of various kinds: the circuits themselves don’t look like that. This could launch us into a discussion of how perception and beauty are both creations of minds and brains, but I’m not up for that. I’ll just say that I do see a difference between the images in this Picture Show and the images in this gallery of the sky islands of Arizona.
Which leads me to the final relevant answer to your excellent questions: I am most inspired by the creativity of humans. This applies very much to science, since it takes creativity and imagination to do great science. I think “inspiration” is pretty closely related to the wonder we feel when we talk about “beauty,” so it seems to belong here too.
Thanks for the topic, and thanks for coming to my TED talk