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Monday, July 08, 2013

Beauty and science: quotations from others

The quotations below are about the relationship between beauty and science. They were written, or said, by a variety of people, some overtly Christian, such as John C. Polkinghorne, some not, such as Einstein or Feynman. Most of the publications are secular, including those from Yale University Press and Cambridge University Press, Physics Today, and the New York Times.

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, wrote: “What is it about nature that lets this happen, that it is possible to guess from one part what the rest is going to do? That is an unscientific question: I do not know how to answer it, and therefore I am going to give an unscientific answer. I think it is because nature has a simplicity and therefore a great beauty.” “Seeking New Laws,” pp. 143-167, in Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, New York: Modern Library, 1994. Quote is from p. 167. I have read all, or nearly all, of Feynman’s popular writing, and seen no evidence that he believed in God at all.

The world, you might argue, does not need yet another subatomic particle. But even particle physics has not been about particles for a long time, physicists say. Rather it is about the relationships between particles, the symmetries that nature seems to respect, in short, about the beauty that physical laws seem to embody. Dennis Overbye, "After Triumph and Disillusionment, Wonder Re-enters the Story," New York Times, July 27, 2004

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 and life would not be worth living. . . . I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp. Henri Poincaré, as quoted by S. Chandrasekar, "Beauty and the quest for beauty in science," Physics Today, July, 1979, pp. 25-30, p. 25. Source not given.

We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty. Attempts have been made to explain away this fact. No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. Remember that Sherlock Holmes told a shocked Dr. Watson that he didn't care whether the Earth went around the Sun or vice versa, for it had no relevance to the pursuits of his daily life! John C. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. pp. 2-3.

Thus, the perception of the world's beauty as a reflection of God's glory is incomplete without the awareness that underlying the beauty and wonder of earthly nature is the omnipresent, restless operation of electromagnetic phenomena. These phenomena can be seen as a reflection, an analogue, of God's indwelling. This very thought, in itself, possesses an inherent aesthetic value.

Moreover, the appreciation of the beauty that the EMI [Electromagnetic Interaction] contributes to nature is wanting without the realization that the mathematical equations that describe the EMI have a timeless beauty. The elegant symmetry of Maxwell's equations and the inspired simplicity of Dirac's equation bestow an abiding aesthetic flavor to the texture of the microscopic underworld. Dirac and Heisenberg among many other theoretical physicists have throughout their careers expressed how they have been guided by the criteria of beauty and simplicity in their work.
- Lawrence W. Fagg, Electromagnetism and the Sacred: At the Frontier of Spirit and Matter (New York: Continuum, 1999) p. 120.

For the theist, the rational beauty of the physical world is not just a brute fact, but a reflection of the mind of the Creator. Aesthetic experience and ethical intuitions are not just psychological or social constructs, but intimations of God's joy in creation and of his just will. Religious experience is not illusory human projection, but encounter with divine reality. There is an integrating wholeness in the theistic account which I find intellectually satisfying, even though it must wrestle with the mystery of infinite Being.

The theist and the atheist alike survey the same world of human experience, but offer incompatible interpretations of it. My claim would be that theism has a more profound and comprehensive understanding to offer than that afforded by atheism. Atheists are not stupid, but they explain less.
- John C. Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. The Gifford Lectures for 1993-4, p. 70. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994

That seems even clearer to us when we recognize that it is mathematics which gives us the key to unlock the secrets of nature. Paul Dirac spent his life in the search for beautiful equations. That is a concept not all will find immediately accessible, but among those of us who speak the language of mathematics, mathematical beauty is a recognizable quality. It is hard to describe but easy to recognize -- like most other kinds of beauty. Its essence lies in a certain economy and elegance that leads to the mathematical property of being 'deep.'… Time and again we have found that it is equations with that indispensable character of mathematical beauty which describe the nature of the physical world. - John C. Polkinghorne, Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 79-80.

I asked him once about a theory and he said, "when I am evaluating a theory, I ask myself, if I were God, would I have made the universe in that way." If the theory did not have the sort of simple beauty that would be demanded of a God, then the theory was at best only provisional. (Banesh Hoffman, "Working with Einstein," pp. 475-478, in Some Strangeness in the Proportion: A Centennial Symposium to Celebrate the Achievements of Albert Einstein, Harry Woolf, ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1980. Quote is from p. 476.) 


The Psalmist said:  1 The heavens declare the glory of God.
The expanse shows his handiwork.
2 Day after day they pour out speech,
and night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech nor language,
where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice has gone out through all the earth,
their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19, Bible quotations from the World English Bible, public domain)


St. Paul said:  "For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity . . ." Romans 1:20a.

As far as we can tell, God created a universe that is understandable, and beautiful. Physicists, and others, have understood part of the way in which that universe is put together, and what they understand reveals a universe of pattern, of beauty, of, if you please, design. Hebrews 11:3 says that we understand that God created the universe by faith, and it is true that there is no scientific proof for God's creation, but, for those of us who look, even some who have not believed in a personal Creator, the evidence is there.

Thanks for reading. We live in a beautiful universe!

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