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From science to arts:
Beauty and simplicity in science
Darko Polšek
[email protected]
IUC Dubrovnik
May 2004.
Henri Poincare
"The scientist does not study nature
because it is useful to do so. He studies it
because he takes pleasure in it; and he
takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.
If nature were not beautiful, it would not
be worth knowing..." Many physicists
(Dirac, Einstein...) seem to hold a similar
view, that there is a close connection
between truth and beauty in natural
Paul Davies
In The Mind of God, Davis says: "It is widely
believed among scientists that beauty is a reliable
guide to truth, and many advances in theoretical
physics have been made by the theorist
demanding mathematical elegance...where
laboratory tests are difficult, these aesthetic
criteria are considered even more important than
Beauty as a driver of scientific
the work of science is both driven and sustained by an
appreciation of beauty and a feeling of awe (e.g. Einstein, Dirac,
Analysis, emotion and sensibility are integral components of both
the scientific and the artistic process.
three levels of aesthetic experience - sensual,
emotional/imaginative and analytical - are common to the
experience and process of science and art.
The same applies for such elements as the play of tension and
relief, realization of expectations, and surprise upon the
encounter of unexpected connections of meanings.
These aesthetic elements can be found in a scientific discovery,
just as they can be found in a good novel or a fine symphony.
The understanding of an essential and deep affinity between
(great) science and (great) art is supported by the claims of
many scientists, who submit that an aesthetic drive underlies
Graham Fermelo: It must be beautiful
to get over what Einstein meant by saying that a grand
mathematical theory and equations must be beautiful:
think of a crossword puzzle when you’re filling it in;
bits of it make sense and it just doesn’t quite work.
Then you realise you’ve got one of the things wrong
and then click, it falls into place and it works. When
you do a rubic cube as well, you’re messing about with
it and all of a sudden click, it falls into place. That’s
very much akin to the feeling that you get
mathematically when an equation really works. It’s that
click feeling and that’s the feeling Einstein certainly had
when he put forward his gravity equation, and indeed
his special theory of relativity too. And yes, that is the
feeling we get these days when we play with his
equation, when we try to find new beautiful equations.
Quantum mechanics and aestethics
Paul Dirac, the author of the quantum mechanic theory for the electron (which
predicted the existence of antimatter), said: "It is more important to have
beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment."
Bohr and Heisenberg’s quantum theory engaged a comparison between physics
and art. Bohr's view was influenced by the "symbolic turn" in that he rejected
all mechanical models of the movement of electrons in the atom. He
pronounced "the failure of all spatio-temporal models" and the need for
recourse to symbolic analogies.
After 1924 Bohr used the notion of symbolic representation regularly, by which
he meant all elements of a physical theory with no correlate in intuition. A more
sophisticated - i.e. symbolic - language was required.
Heisenberg claimed that physical theories were like styles of art. He noted that
the conceptual systems of physics (for instance, Newtonian and quantum) differ
not only because their objects differ, but also because they create different
groups of relations. As styles of art emerge through a set of formal rules so do
symbolic idealizations underlying conceptual systems of physics. Contemporary
science is changing the entire view of classical physics and modern philosophy,
introducing (like a style of art) new presuppositions about the nature of reality.
J. McAllister: Beauty and revolution in
In assessing theories, scientists rely upon empirical
criteria such as internal consistency, predictive
accuracy and explanatory power.
beside empirical matters, aesthetic concerns are also
operative, which cannot be defined in terms of a fixed
set of properties, since what is considered attractive or
beautiful has been different at different times and in
different disciplines.
But in general, beauty in science (as in art) is identified
via features which convey an impression of aptness they are appropriate, fitting or seemly.
aesthetic criteria are as central to the scientist's
acceptance of a theory as are empirical considerations.
theoretical innovations have aesthetic constraints.
J. McAllister 2
There is a distinction between empirical and aesthetic criteria,
but the latter are not merely "extra-scientific", - they are an
integral part of scientific development and change. The
aesthetic canon is constructed by the aesthetic features of all
past theories
- an inductive mechanism which ensures that the aesthetic
canon is conservative. What compels scientists to accept a
new paradigm is that it is empirically better performing.
Allegiance to the aesthetic canon must be suspended to
accept a new theory.
for some the rupture is too deep and they hang on to the
established aesthetic paradigm - to the conservative
aesthetic criteria. Ptolemaic – Copernican system of heavenly
aesthetic factors are on the side of the conservative trend in
the choice between theories, while empirical factors compel
scientists toward innovation and radical breaks with
established views
Joseph Margolis: Against Kuhn
No useful instructions from Kuhn, since aestetic criteria vary with time
Margolis argues that there is a common "reason" art and science
share: professional taste/reason in the sciences, as in the arts, is a
function of historical practice.
What is a "good" explanatory theory (or a painting) is what accords
with practice. Reason is "an artifact of historical life" and the aesthetic
is a convenient "catchall term for the informality with which the most
formal criteria can be legitimated".
Margolis posits consensual practices broadly grounding scientific
praxis and aesthetic taste to some common practical reason
governing both.
There can be no meaningful distinction between "objective" and
"subjective", but at the same time there is no principled difference
between what counts as objectivity in the arts and the sciences.
Margolis discerns that science does not "borrow" from the aesthetic,
but rather the aesthetic is "essential to what we mean by objectivity
in the sciences".
Aestetic tinkering as a scientific
The role of models and metaphors
Example: Watson and Crick - double