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)

16 October 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Encountering Evil

Kathleen Norris, in “Native Evil”, published in the Winter 2000 issue of Boston College Magazine:
Any creative encounter with evil requires that we not distance ourselves from it by simply demonizing those who commit evil acts. In order to write about evil, a writer has to try to comprehend it, from the inside out; to understand the perpetrators and not necessarily sympathize with them. But Americans seem to have a very difficult time recognizing that there is a distinction between understanding and sympathizing. Somehow we believe that an attempt to inform ourselves about what leads to evil is an attempt to explain it away. I believe that just the opposite is true, and that when it comes to coping with evil, ignorance is our worst enemy.
This excerpt is quoted by Jessica Stern in her 2003 book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: HarperCollins, p. xiii).

10 October 2006

Tuesday Quote Frenzy - Because Monday was a Holiday

Richard Feynman, after introducing his subject in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, pp. 9-10:
So now you know what I’m going to talk about. The next question is, will you understand what I’m going to tell you? … No, you’re not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, am I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won’t be able to understand what I am going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does. … It’s a problem that physicists have learned to deal with: they’ve learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don’t like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense.
This gives some insight into why the word ‘belief’ is not really appropriate for describing the scientist’s stance towards the world.

02 October 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Lincoln on Preventive War

Abraham Lincoln, a freshman Congressman, was quite aggressive in criticizing President Polk in 1848 for the initiation of the Mexican War. Back in Illinois, his law partner, William Herndon, wrote to express concern that he was going too far. Herndon argued that the president must be the “sole judge” of whether it is necessary to engage in a preventive attack. In a letter to Herndon dated 2/15/1848, Lincoln replied:
Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purposes, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us”; but he will say to you, “Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter and places our President where kings have always stood.

Further discussion of this may be found in Geoffrey R. Stone's Perilous Times.