23 October 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Beauty in Science

There has been a lot of complaint recently about the preoccupation of the community of theoretical physicists with the elegances of string theory. Recent books by Lee Smolin (The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next) and Peter Woit (Not Even Wrong The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law) argue that physics departments discriminate in favor of string theorists because of the aesthetic appeal of their mathematics, and in spite of the unlikelihood of their ever obtaining experimental validation. Not surprisingly, Leonard Susskind, one of the developers of the theory, disagrees with the assessment of scientific sterility (The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design), but agrees that beauty plays a significant factor in the theory. Here, then, is a sequence of relevant quotes on the nature of beauty in science.

What's beautiful in science is that same thing that's beautiful in Beethoven. There's a fog of events, and suddenly you see a connection. It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.
– Victor Weisskopf (Quoted by K.C. Cole in Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life, p. 230)

It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unifying features of a complex of phenomena which present themselves as quite unconnected to the direct experience of the senses.
– Albert Einstein, 1901, letter to Marcel Grossman, (Quoted in E. O. Wilson, Consilience, chapter 1)

[I]t is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment. … It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress.
– P. A. M. Dirac (Quoted in S. Chandrasekhar, 1987, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivation in Science, p. 66)

This “shuddering before the beautiful,” this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound.
– Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, in Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivation in Science

I don’t know, of course, whether Dirac would think that the mathematics of string theory is sufficiently beautiful to make it likely that it will survive as part of the final laws of physics. He might agree with that, and he might not agree with that, but I don’t think he would disapprove of what we are trying to do.
– Steven Weinberg, 1986 Dirac Memorial Lecture, published as “Towards the final laws of physics”, in Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 61-110.

From the theoretical point of view one would think that [magnetic] monopoles should exist, because of the prettiness of the mathematics. Many attempts to find them have been made, but all have been unsuccessful. One should conclude that pretty mathematics by itself is not an adequate reason for nature to have made use of a theory. We still have much to learn in seeking for the basic principles of nature.
– P. A. M. Dirac, 1981

Don't bother me about your conscientious scruples. After all, the thing is beautiful physics.
– Enrico Fermi (before 1945, quoted in Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1958, p. 11)


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