A Beautiful Question

I’ve just completed the book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Nobel Prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek.

This book is a long meditation on a single question:

Does the world embody beautiful ideas?

Our Question may seem like a strange thing to ask. Ideas are one thing, physical bodies are quite another. What does it mean to “embody” an “idea”?

Embodying ideas is what artists do. Starting from visionary conceptions, artists produce physical objects (or quasi-physical products, like musical scores that unfold into sound). Our Beautiful Question then is close to this one:

Is the world a work of art?

To answer this question Wilczek takes us on a thoroughly enjoyable journey from Pythagoras to Supersymmetry and at the end of that journey his answer “…is a resounding Yes!”

Does the world embody beautiful ideas, and if it does, what are we to make of that?

Are these questions worth asking?


14 thoughts on “A Beautiful Question

  1. Does the universe embody beautiful ideas?

    Wilczek’s groundbreaking work in quantum physics was inspired by his intuition to look for a deeper order of beauty in nature. In fact, every major advance in his career came from this intuition: to assume that the universe embodies beautiful forms, forms whose hallmarks are symmetry—harmony, balance, proportion—and economy. There are other meanings of “beauty,” but this is the deep logic of the universe—and it is no accident that it is also at the heart of what we find aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.

  2. What would a universe that wasn’t a work of art look like? When they say that the way things *are* turns out to be the way beings that evolved here think things *ought to be*, does that strike you as a tad, oh, I don’t know, lets call it really freaking not at all surprising?

  3. Maybe he should leave the books and keep researching the minor details that get him awards.
    There is no such thing as beauty. Its a human idea that doesn’t exist in the universe.
    What instead there is IS accuracy in symmetry.
    God create perfect symmetry. Its the right answer. yet in a fallen world we see decay from this and its unright. So humans , by poor sampling method, conclude beauty is a special class within nature. A minority class. So we anoint it as if its a unique thing.
    Actually it was the original norm and we are all in degrees from it.
    So beauty is a myth. its just accuracy in symmetry with us seeing it not as the MEAN but a extreme in the graph.
    If we only ever saw beauty/accuracy we would never know its beauty. It would be the mean normal. Beautyu only exists because of a majority of unbeauty/unsymmetry.
    In fact beauty is evidence for a creator. The opposite of evolutionary chaos concepts.

  4. Stormfield –

    A man once was kidnapped. His kidnappers told him that they have created a machine that randomly chooses a 10 digit number on a screen when they “pull the switch.” He is to watch the number that the machine displays. If the machine displays exactly 10 “9’s” in a row he will live and be set free to go home and see his wife and kids. Any other number and he dies with an automatic bullet through the brain. He does the quick math and realizes he will almost certainly die as the chances of spinning 10 “9’s” are pretty easily computable. As he shivers (and wets himself) in preparation for death…his captors pull the switch. He is stunned to see that in fact 10 “9’s” are instantly displayed on the screen. He begins weeping for joy now in shocked surprise at his good luck.

    His lead captor, stormfield, remarks, “I don’t know why you are so surprised, that is what you should have expected to see because any other number and you wouldn’t even have been alive to see it.”

    Moral – while for some of us that answer may be compelling, for others it isn’t. It still seems right to be bewildered at the number that did emerge even though we wouldn’t have seen any other number.

  5. Humans exist in the universe and humans are full of beautiful ideas. I have to agree with Wilczec then.

    But beauty is entirely subjective, so it leads us nowhere that we agree the universe contains beauty.

  6. I really think that Wilczek is claiming that he is speaking of objective realities, not subjective, that the Real embodies the Ideal.

  7. Jackson Knepp,

    I don’t see that as an apt metaphor at all. We evolved here over a long period of time. We evolved in an active physical relationship with our environment. As the intellectual and aesthetic component of our physical selves developed, it would be peculiar if it didn’t have a strong relationship with the world around us. What on earth does this have to do with the sort of one-shot probability you describe?

    When you say “…it still seems right…”, well, so what? Is it your contention that reality should match our intuition? If there is one certain thing that has been demonstrated by physics in the last century, it is that our intuitions in this regard can’t be trusted. It feels to me that relativity is wrong, but since my GPS works, my intuition in that case is wrong. I can’t see that an intuition suggesting that since sunsets please out brain they must somehow be a form of art is any more reliable.

  8. Stormfield: I can’t see that an intuition suggesting that since sunsets please out brain they must somehow be a form of art is any more reliable.

    That’s not the argument of the book though. He’s a physicist and he’s writing about our theories of what exists and how it works and the mathematics and models that describe reality. You don’t look at a sunset and see the mathematical equations of physics.

  9. Mung:
    I really think that Wilczek is claiming that he is speaking of objective realities, not subjective, that the Real embodies the Ideal.

    That’s cute. Objective beauty? According to whom?

  10. J. C. Friedrich Von Schiller (1788–1805) had some interesting thoughts on beauty.

    From Letters 2 & 3:
    I hope that I shall succeed in convincing you that this matter of art is less foreign to the needs than to the tastes of our age; nay, that, to arrive at a solution even in the political problem, the road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom. But I cannot carry out this proof without my bringing to your remembrance the principles by which the reason is guided in political legislation.

    Man is not better treated by nature in his first start than her other works are; so long as he is unable to act for himself as an independent intelligence, she acts for him. But the very fact that constitutes him a man is, that he does not remain stationary, where nature has placed him, that he can pass with his reason, retracing the steps nature had made him anticipate, that he can convert the work of necessity into one of free solution, and elevate physical necessity into a moral law.

    When man is raised from his slumber in the senses, he feels that he is a man, he surveys his surroundings, and finds that he is in a state. He was introduced into this state, by the power of circumstances, before he could freely select his own position. But as a moral being he cannot possibly rest satisfied with a political condition forced upon him by necessity, and only calculated for that condition; and it would be unfortunate if this did satisfy him. In many cases man shakes off this blind law of necessity, by his free spontaneous action, of which among many others we have an instance, in his ennobling by beauty and suppressing by moral influence the powerful impulse implanted in him by nature in the passion of love.

    From Letter 18:
    By beauty the sensuous man is led to form and to thought; by beauty the spiritual man is brought back to matter and restored to the world of sense.

    From this statement it would appear to follow that between matter and form, between passivity and activity, there must be a middle state, and that beauty plants us in this state. It actually happens that the greater part of mankind really form this conception of beauty as soon as they begin to reflect on its operations, and all experience seems to point to this conclusion. But, on the other hand, nothing is more unwarrantable and contradictory than such a conception, because the aversion of matter and form, the passive and the active, feeling and thought, is eternal and cannot be mediated in any way. How can we remove this contradiction? Beauty weds the two opposed conditions of feeling and thinking, and yet there is absolutely no medium between them. The former is immediately certain through experience, the other through the reason.

    This is the point to which the whole question of beauty leads, and if we succeed in settling this point in a satisfactory way, we have at length found the clue that will conduct us through the whole labyrinth of aesthetics.

    A correct appreciation of beauty leads us out of the necessity of our natural state and from the other direction as rational beings it grounds us in truth. It frees us from our physical passioins and we also become free from our sense of duty.

  11. CharlieM: A correct appreciation of beauty

    Prove that there is such a thing as a “correct” appreciation of beauty.

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