September 9, 2015


Wonder : A theoretical physicist searches for the design behind nature's beauty. : a review of Frank Wilczek's A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design (Amy X. Wang, Slate)

To Wilczek--who received the Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work in particle physics--the innate human appreciation for beauty lies in the "deep design" of nature itself. In other words, we're infatuated with beauty because the universe was created to be beautiful. Wilczek's aim is grand, perhaps daringly so: He argues that beauty is the core organizational principle of every speck in the universe. The "beautiful question" of the book is a simple one: "Is the world a work of art?"

History books reveal that humans have always built their civilizations around two things: an obsessive desire for beauty and an analytical quest for truth. It's a classic tale--the artist and the scientist, two halves of society. Wilczek tries to marry the two, arguing that they are one and the same: A search for the scientific is a hunger for the beautiful. Beauty is order, and order is beauty. His argument isn't spiritual, but based on fact--as an agnostic, the author steers well clear of religion, and the result is a bracing meditation that leans convincingly on hard science.

All forces of nature, from electromagnetism to gravity, "embody, at their heart, a common principle: local symmetry," Wilczek writes. It's this symmetry that calls to us. When we declare a certain color combination aesthetically pleasing, what we're really admiring is its perfect order. Our love of lakes and rivers is a way of paying homage to the timely organization of waves, to the synchronized dance of wind and air. [...]

This is the book of a love-struck physicist--one who leaps, within the span of a page, from providing a dense explanation of photons to delightedly comparing atoms to "tiny musical instruments." The word question--as in, the beautiful question driving everything--is endearingly capitalized every time, as if Wilczek frets that the reader might forget its importance. And sustained above all the science lessons is the clear note of the book's unremitting love of the universe.

If we're instinctively obsessed with beauty because it's orderly, then this book--a book that organizes beauty into order--tugs at that very instinct in order to foster our understanding. At every turn, Wilczek cleverly reels the science of beauty back to basic organizational principles, whether visual or abstract. Astronomy is shown to operate within simple rules of geometry. Music is deconstructed into its primary form, auditory harmony. The same principles of symmetry and economy, which Wilczek calls the "hallmarks of nature's artistic style," make their way into Newton's method of reductionism and James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electrodynamics. Even if we can't fully understand the laws of nature themselves, Wilczek lets us appreciate how they are mirrored and embedded within one another, catering once again to our deep, universally programmed need for organization.

Posted by at September 9, 2015 6:33 PM

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