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October 15, 2006

The Aesthetics of Science

Physicists, writes K.C. Cole in the Los Angeles Times, rely on "beauty" to judge their theories:

In physics, truth and beauty often walk hand in hand. Physicists describe theories as "ugly" or "beautiful," talk about ideas that "smell" or "feel" right. Often, aesthetic judgments lead to discoveries: as in Einstein's theory of gravity and Paul A.M. Dirac's discovery of antimatter. Aesthetics, French physicist Henri Poincaré said, is a "delicate sieve" that sorts the true from the misleading. Or as Dirac famously put it: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiments."

Is this just a shorthand -- a way of getting to the heart of things more quickly? Or is it a sign of the extent to which metaphysical notions -- wishes, prejudices, mysticism -- have infiltrated even science? Is there an "ugly" physics out there just waiting for some aesthetically uninclined scientist to discover?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 15, 2006 11:49 PM


"God likes change and a joke. God loves CBGB's." from an op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday on the (sigh) closing of CBGB's... sorry, Mitch, realize this is completely irrelevant to your post here: but maybe CBGB's is worth a mention if you're talking about the link between beauty & truth -- it was certainly never an icon for the beautiful (in fact, punk/new wave celebrated precisely the opposite of beauty & truth--akin to ugly physics, perhaps?) but it obviously had far greater impact than anything promoting itself as perfection... 'disco sucks' just for that reason, right? ah, sorry, realize this is too much of a stretch (even for me). Just thought it was truly interesting that Richard Hell chose to end his column yesterday w/ the quote about god; references to god now inevitably bring me back to this site, for good or ill.

Posted by: JM at October 16, 2006 12:08 AM

I doubt that there's such a thing as ugly physics. And it's certainly not mysticism. What they're talking about is the beauty of "rightness." For me, that includes qualities like coherence, order, clarity. It's no different than looking at a work of art and judging it by various aesthetic measures.

Posted by: Catana at October 16, 2006 10:51 AM

Science is Art is Religion. The differences are as imagined as are their ideologies. Aesthetics are determined by muopioid receptors in the brain. They are strung all along our visual cortex; we get high on "beautifully" organized patterns. What those patterns are differs from brain to brain.

We do what feels good; for some that is science for others evangelical Christianity and for some odd ones (to me) it is both.

I get high from running strings of 2D patterns of colored pixels on a screen. I studied a bunch of science to do it, but I call it art. But I could call it the meditation in my theology of reality.

Science just happens to have more power to control the physical world; that in no way dilutes its base of improvable assumptions.

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 16, 2006 11:08 AM

"Science just happens to have more power to control the physical world; that in no way dilutes its base of improvable assumptions."

I was just thinking about this very thing after finishing a rather interesting book on the philosophy of science. Hume argued that scientific assumptions about the nature of the universe--such as simplicity (Occam's Razor) and uniformity (universality of the laws of physics, the principle of uniformitarianism)--along with all inductive reasoning are inherently irrational. Would the desire for symmetry, elegance, beauty, etc. reflect an inflitration of science by irrationality OR is reason showing it's roots?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at October 16, 2006 12:06 PM

Reason is showing its roots in evolution. The survival of the body eclectic determines the desire and the shape or reason. We know what patterns we construct, we do not know how many patterns and how much input we throw away.

Science and Scientology are both natural results of our desires to construct "reasonable" patterns in our realities.

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 16, 2006 2:12 PM

I submit this video as proof that science will save us and keep us from being lost:


Posted by: Jay Saul at October 17, 2006 7:51 PM

Thanks for making me laugh way out loud, JayS! "technology is our friend" oh yeah

Posted by: JM at October 17, 2006 10:16 PM

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