Natural Beauty: Steve Paulson for Nautilus writes: “The E8 Lie group, pictured above, is a perfectly symmetrical 248-dimensional object. (Lie groups are used in math and physics to model symmetries.) Symmetry, Frank Wilczek says, is prominent in the fundamental laws of nature, and ‘connotes harmony and beauty.’ ”
Illustration Credit: Dea, R.Casnati; Getty Images
In an article in Nautilus, Steve Paulson interviews Frank Wilczek, a quantum physicist who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. Unlike many other current physicists, Wilczek sees a place for philosophy in science, and in particular whether “the world embodies beautiful ideas.” When it comes to ultimate questions posed by western philosophers throughout the ages, starting with the ancient Greeks, the place of beauty has always been prominent, it joining a short list that includes truth, goodness and justice among the ultimate values in human philosophy.
Symmetry is beautiful. When you see a symmetrical flower or a geometrical object, you can't help but notice its beauty. Why this is so can be studied on various levels, including by neuroscience on what is taking place in our brains. Even so, it can also be studied in a much broader way by philosophy. The nature of beauty (as is the nature of art) remains a fundamental issue of philosophical aesthetics.
Such prominent philosophers as Hume, Burke, Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer investigated the nature of beauty. That science again is taking up the mantle is thus not surprising, given physics’ return (after a silence of four decades) to fundamental questions. There are good historical reasons why this is taking place just now. [For more, see “Physicists Do Need Philosophers.”]
In “Beauty Is Physics’ Secret Weapon” (January 14, 2016), Paulson writes:
You say there’s beauty in the design of nature. That seems to be a matter of aesthetics. Is it a scientific question?
It is a scientific question. The exact question I’m trying to address is whether the world embodies beautiful ideas. That’s a question about the world on the one hand and beauty on the other. Beauty is notoriously subjective and comes in many forms, but there is a historical record in art and philosophy that one can consult to see what people have objectively found beautiful. We can consult science and compare whether the concepts that emerge from the fundamental laws of nature have something in common with what people find beautiful.
Does it matter to a scientist if the world is beautiful?
I don’t think science is walled off from the rest of life. So yes, it matters to me a lot whether the world is beautiful. It’s also a practical question for physicists, engineers, and designers. At the frontiers of physics, we’re dealing with realms of the very small and the very large and the very strange. Everyday experience is not a good guide and experiments can be difficult and expensive. So the source of intuition is not so much from everyday experience or from a massive accumulation of facts, but from feelings about what would give the laws of nature more inner coherence and harmony. My work has been guided by trying to make the laws more beautiful.Well put; it is not necessary for science to be walled off from the rest of life for its success. Science can succeed and become accessible to many when it takes its proper place within society, not above it. When scientists act like the high priests of ancient times, talking at people instead of to people they are in effect doing a disservice to science, reducing its place in greater society. Equally cogent a thought is that science based on epistemology, which contains ideas of symmetrical beauty, is a science that in my view is worth pursuing. Wilczek speaks about human intuition emanating not so much from facts and experimentation, but “from feelings.” He is a scientist who is not afraid to use his whole being. There is something objectively beautiful in such a pursuit that has in it hints of poetry and of truth.
For more, go to [Nautilus]