A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Designby Frank Wilczek. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. 448 pages
“Does the world embody beautiful ideas? That is the titular question of this new book by Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. The author poses still more important questions in his introduction: “Is the world a work of art? If it makes sense to consider the world as a work of art, is it a successful work of art? Is the physical world, considered as a work of art, beautiful?”
Wilczek’s project, as one might expect, is a colossal one, for two reasons. First, wearing the white coat of an experimental scientist, he must enumerate and explain the rules and functions of the universe. Then, wearing the tweed suit of an art history professor, he must judge those rules and functions as if they were hanging in a museum, beside a little plaque bearing the artist’s name, “The Creator.” (Fairly un-religiously, Wilczek refers to this hypothetical maker as “The Artisan.”)
Such a project may seem doomed for failure, or at least an unsatisfying conclusion. Yet Wilczek has a rare three-fold gift that affords him a much higher chance of success in this endeavor: First, a scientific mind able to perceive and engage with the finest intricacies of the universe. Second, the ability to condense all of those intricate fundamentals into discrete chunks and package them in the proper pedagogical order, to give a layperson the best chance of understanding. And third, perhaps most rare of all, the facility with and passion for the English language, to convey all of the above in an engaging matter such that the work becomes a creative act, rather than a scientific text.
Although Wilczek’s journey ends with the most complex theoretical underpinnings of creation and existence, he begins on much more familiar ground: triangles. Namely those of Pythagoras, whom many of us may remember parting ways with back in high school. You will recall that what his theorem tells us is that “if you erect squares on the different sides of a triangle, then the sum of the areas of the two smaller squares adds up to the area of the larger square.” The revolutionary thought here is that a rule of mathematics could describe a rule of reality. Pythagoras’s credo, Wilczek tells us, can be described as “all things are numbers.” He continues: “[It is] saying something quite startling. It is telling you that the geometry of objects embodies hidden numerical relationships. It says, in other words, that Number describes, if not yet everything, at least something very important about physical reality, namely the sizes and shapes of the objects that inhabit it.”
Relevance to the beautiful question may not be clear at first, but the idea here is to show the relationship of the real to the ideal. The Pythagorean theorem was perhaps the first glimpse of that relationship by a human mind. Wilczek tells us: “Pythagoras’ credo is not a literal assertion, that the world must embody whole numbers, but the optimistic conviction that the world should embody beautiful concepts.”
Once the concept of the ideal enters the equation, Wilczek turns, rightly, to Plato and his cave. Presented here is a refreshing reading of the famous allegory and its implications, with an eye towards the scientific rather than the freewheeling philosophical. Wilczek is interested mostly in Plato’s examination of “the relationship between physical reality and ultimate reality,” and although Wilczek decides that most of Plato’s answers were based on “mystic intuition and dubious logic,” the line of thinking that he developed can be traced directly to modern scientific breakthroughs. For instance, Plato’s idea that all matter was composed of different “platonic solids” (three-dimensional shapes that embody certain principles of symmetry) may not have been technically correct, but the thought that the basic building blocks of creation were unimaginably tiny and uniform would (much) later be borne out in atomic theory. Wilczek writes: “Though it fails as a scientific theory, Plato’s vision succeeds as prophecy and, I would claim, as a work of intellectual art.”
Soon the reader begins to realize that, although Wilczek’s stated goal for the book might be just a bit beyond impossible (for now), what he is really after is something equally admirable: to prove that the various theories and laws proffered by our greatest minds are works equal to the output of our greatest artists, not only in the furthering of our culture, but as actual objects of beauty themselves. He takes issue, in fact, with Bertrand Russell’s claim that the beauty of mathematics must be “cold and austere, like that of a sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection….” For Wilczek, a beautiful theory can embody every bit of beauty, along with all the “trappings,” of a symphony, a cathedral, a painter’s masterpiece or a rapturous sunset over a stunning vista. Granted, to appreciate science on this level takes a bit more work on our part, but that is the real aim of this book: to guide the relatively uninitiated into having an artistic experience with man’s greatest scientific discoveries.
A review of this length cannot give a proper recitation of the different avenues of scientific inquiry presented here: along the way, Wilczek touches on subjects including, but not limited to, ancient philosophy, mathematics, geometry, sound, music, color, the biological processes of hearing and vision, time and quantum theory, at various levels of increasing sophistication and difficulty. It must also be admitted, by this reviewer and by Wilczek himself, that although the book is reasonably accessible, it will reward the reader for a more deliberate approach—which is another way of saying that some sections here might glaze the eyes of former English majors.
As a scientist, Wilczek possesses brilliance that cannot be denied, as his Nobel Prize will attest. This book, though, suggests that his understanding of art—which is to say, his appreciation of objects of beauty, whatever they may be—is equally impressive.
NICHOLAS MANCUSI has published pieces in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Daily Beast and many other publications. He lives in New York City.