Margaret Wertheim is the author of “Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” a history of Western concepts of space from Dante to the Internet.
By Frank Wilczek
Penguin Press. 430 pp. $29.95
‘Is the world a work of art?” And if it is, then “is it a successful work of art?” Specifically, as a work of art, is the physical world “beautiful”? These are the questions Frank Wilczek sets out to explore in his ambitious new book, “A Beautiful Question,” an impassioned text he describes as a “meditation.”
It is jumping no guns to say that Wilczek answers all three queries in the affirmative, with resounding and almost giddying gusto. The fundamental laws of nature, he tells us, have again and again revealed an inherent beauty at the heart of the universal system. He hopes to share this beauty with his readers: “Just as a graduate degree in art history is not a prerequisite for engaging with the world’s best art and finding a deeply rewarding experience,” he writes, “so I hope, in this book, to help you engage with Nature’s art.” For Wilczek, it is always Nature with a capital N, and here there are explicit overtones of anthropomorphism, as Nature with its creative powers is likened to human artistic legends such as Rembrandt, Mozart and Louis Armstrong.
“To appreciate Nature’s art,” Wilczek tells us, “we must enter into her style with sympathy,” coming to understand not only the hallmarks of this style but also the dialect in which it is couched: mathematics. He thus offers us a history of the idea that the physical world is governed by mathematical laws, which, far from being arbitrary, seem prescribed by certain aesthetic principles, specifically symmetry, here defined as “a love of harmony, balance and proportion,” and economy, defined as “satisfaction in producing an abundance of effects from very limited means.”
The Pythagorean/Platonic impulse that Wilczek traces had its first brief flourishing in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but not until the scientific revolution did it truly effloresce, in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and their contemporaries. Today it culminates in a desire for a mathematical theory that would unite all the fundamental physical forces along with their associated particles.
Wilczek has played no small part in this story. In 2004, he was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics for work he did as a graduate student developing our understanding of the strong nuclear force, that operates inside protons and neutrons. Additionally, he has contributed to the theory of quantum chromodynamics and is a pioneer of supersymmetry, one of the prime candidates for a unified theory.
Wilczek describes how ideas about symmetry and harmony have served as an inspiration throughout modern physics. Johannes Kepler famously fixated on a model of the solar system based on the regularity of the Platonic solids. Kepler was wrong about the solids, but his love of symmetry enabled him to make the monumental leap from insisting a priori that the planets move in circles (the most regular geometric form) to seeing that they actually move in ellipses, which can be understood as circles with two centers, not totally regular but still highly symmetric. His orbital discoveries laid the foundations on which Newton later reconceived the cosmic system.
Wilczek is at his best when describing the contemporary theoretical underpinning of symmetry in the laws of nature. That foundation was laid a century ago by the German mathematician Emmy Noether, one of science’s great under-appreciated geniuses. A friend and contemporary of Einstein’s, Noether showed that whenever some quality in nature is conserved — such as energy or momentum — there is a corresponding mathematical symmetry. Noether, a woman who had to fight even to attend university, gave us a tool that has become one of the most powerful guides in theoretical physics today. As Wilczek notes, the prized goal now for his colleagues is to find a theory that will unify the disparate forces and particles through a mathematical framework in which they will all be shown to be specific instances of an underlying symmetry. This is the ultimate beauty that he says nature achieves.
The idea that physics is a search for beauty is not new. Historians of science have been discussing it for at least half a century. What’s missing from Wilczek’s telling is an awareness of the historical and cultural embeddedness of the subject. He writes as if conceptions of beauty were universal: “When we find that our sense of beauty is realized in the physical world, we are discovering something about the world, but also about ourselves.” Which selves do we learn about here, and whose conceptions of beauty are we engaging?
For example, in the book “The Poetic Structure of the World,” the French thinker Fernand Hallyn describes the ways in which the cosmologies of Copernicus and Kepler reflected contemporary European aesthetic ideals, with the high-Renaissance interest in geometric perfection echoed in Copernicus’s commitment to circles, and the Mannerist facination with more relaxed forms mirrored in Kepler’s move to ellipses. If the study of aesthetics teaches us anything, it is that what is regarded as beautiful is historically contingent and often profoundly local. Cubism is just one of Western culture’s many artistic movements that privilege asymmetrical arrangements, delighting us with irregular fracturings of the visual field. Indigenous Australians don’t generally place symmetry at the top of their aesthetic concerns. Indeed, aborginal art is often valued for its unquely wondrous off-kilter patterning and forms, which are said to impart knowledge about the world.
Neither is nature’s beauty usually symmetrical. The gorgeous spectacle of thunderstorms, the sublime zigzags of the Grand Canyon, the fractalized forms of clouds — none of these fit the patterns of symmetry that Wilczek celebrates. Complexity theory has revealed that a vast range of natural phenomena are literally chaotic, the very opposite of Platonic notions of regularity. That’s one reason the discovery of chaos is so important in the history of science: It shattered certain philosophical and aesthetic preconceptions about the way nature must be.
Personally, I look forward to the synthesis Wilczek envisions. I argued 20 years ago that high-end theoretical physics is a search for a certain kind of beauty, which I happen to enjoy. But the overarching symmetry sought by unified-field theorists pertains only to certain facets of nature, and many advancements in physics — such as Kepler’s discovery of ellipses — have been made precisely by branching out from this admittedly beautiful ideal.