Beautiful symmetry, beautiful truth?


As I've observed before, many scientists, especially physicists, seem to have a strong belief that the fundamental truths of nature are inherently elegant and beautiful. This new NPR story on symmetries fits right into that scientific-beauty-is-truth frame - down to the requisite Keats quote at the end:

The point here, as Tennant says, is that in the weird quantum world, under certain precise conditions, an order in nature emerges that was previously unknown. "When I started out I really expected that quantum systems would be somehow more complicated and somehow more confusing than the everyday world that we're familiar with," he says. "But every system that we've looked at has turned out to be elegant; it's turned out to be truly beautiful."

So beauty lies at the heart of matter. But the English poet John Keats already knew that. In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," he said:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Let me play the critic for a minute. It baffles me how ending on the Keats quote adds anything here, other than that NPR-esque ooh-aren't-we-interdisciplinary element. Not that I'm knocking NPR - I'll take my interdisciplinariness where I can get it! But if Keats had written a poem questioning the beauty of truth, that would be a really interesting twist - a great counterpoint to the assumption that fundamental scientific truths will be beautiful, or, more precisely, that they will fit the human conception of what beauty is. For some reason, I don't ever see people questioning that assumption, even though it doesn't seem at all inevitable to me. Thoughts?

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Most life scientists, not to mention biomedical scientists, I know have no inclinations of this sort. They are usually happy with working on wet, dirty, messy, incomplete systems and they know they'll never, ever, be able to put these systems on a beautiful formula.

'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' is an interesting poen, because depending how you read it, it really *does* question the value of beauty in determining truth. The poem is mostly about the eternal conflict between beautiful permanence (as seen on the vase) or the transient yet far more meaningful reality of life. The lovers on the vase will remain forever in suspended animation, they will stay beautiful forever, yet at the same time they will never actually kiss.

The last two lines are not even spoken by the narrator, they're spoken by the vase. The vase believes that truth lies in the beauty of permanence, in continual longing for the moment that will never come. The vase's truth is unchanging, unquestionable, fixed in time for ever sinse the day it was made.

It is never made clear at all what Keats thinks. Comparing it to his other poems (particularly 'Ode on Melencholy') my personal opinion is that he's not in favour of that at all, and that the whole last stanza is more of a dire warning. Yes, in times of stress it is easier to grope at the steadfast and unchanging, and to grasp for beauty as the body decays, but in reality it is far better to sieze the moment as it comes. In real life the lovers will have their moment of passion, even if by doing that means they must then pass on into death. On the vase they will never die, but never achieve anything either.

Good point, Lab Rat. I should have said, "if Keats had written a poem that everyone understood to clearly question the relationship between truth and beauty. . . "

I personally think that last couplet is the most annoying pair of lines ever, which only work for me as irony or an indictment of the inhumanity of art (it reminds me strongly of Yeats' Lapis Lazuli). I hope Keats was on that page with me, but it doesn't really matter. In pop culture, Keats' poem is basically taken to mean what it says on its face: that truth is beauty. Which I think is way less interesting than the entire poem, and also not what Keats was saying - but unfortunately what he was saying is unclear to most people, and moreover, the poem is not even on point for the whole scientific truth=beauty framing.

All of this is not to criticize the NPR journalist for failing to do a nuanced analysis of Keats. Recently I wrote an essay which drew heavily on Yeats, making parallels between one of his poems and a modern artwork. It all got edited out, and the final essay barely mentioned Yeats. I can see why - it was really dense and convoluted before - but it was also much more interesting, since it got away from simple framing and into how these ideas are not simple.

I always thought the believe in beauty was a strong bias in physics. While it is a bias based on experience - much of what we do know of fundamental physics is indeed beautiful - it is a bias nonetheless. It's the danger of string theory (much of which would be more accurately termed 'string hypothesis'). It might be beautiful, but that doesn't make it inherently true, and if it isn't testable, it's not even science. It's one reason I drifted away from particle physics into the obviously messy world of geophysics.

I'm an experimentalist - that's my bias.

I think there can be a great deal of beauty in a variety of esoteric concepts. The more advanced mathematics becomes the more beautiful the equations become. There is an inherent beauty in dealing with logic that deals with knowledge that derives from a series of inductive and deductive thoughts that arrives at the correct conclusion. Which would be predictive of observable reality. I'd point out that Ptolemys theorys of planetary movement were able to more accurately predict planetary movement than Copernicus...when his theory was originally introduced. Accounting for all of that retrograde motion with equations is like looking into a mechanical is a thing of beauty...much more beautiful than a modern watch...but ultimately the tech behind the modern watch is able to tell better just takes a while. Having said all of the biological world, there can not only appear to be things which are inherently dirty or ugly...yet fill their niche. There are things that can appear absolutely malevolent or sinister. Various forms of parasites which kill their host come to mind, as well as microbes which simply destroy the minds of "higher" life forms.(in this case it is important to state I realize there are those who would suggest mammals are not "higher" and there are no hierarchies in nature...just a note) I hope I didn't ramble to far. This is a concept(truth and beauty) that can inspire great thought on a variety of levels.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

hehe I did a massive Keats analysis ramble, so I wouldn't worry. :)

I know that as far as the story goes that Keats quote is being used at face value. I just always find it ironic when scientists, who more than anyone get (justifiably) irritated when their work gets quoted out of context in an oversimplified manner, can do the same out of context quoting for random pieces of literature.

"I just always find it ironic when scientists, who more than anyone get (justifiably) irritated when their work gets quoted out of context in an oversimplified manner, can do the same out of context quoting for random pieces of literature."

Well. . . .what Bora would say (I think) is that it's the science journalists' fault for doing the out-of-context quoting in both cases. :)