The shapeliness of the world
By Margaret Wertheim
Finding Nature’s Deep Design
By Frank Wilczek
‘Is the world a work of art?” And if it is, then “is it a successful work of art?” Specifically, as a work of art, is the physical world “beautiful”? These are the questions Frank Wilczek sets out to explore in his ambitious new book, “A Beautiful Question,” an impassioned text he describes as a “meditation.”
It is jumping no guns to say that Wilczek answers all three queries in the affirmative, with resounding and almost giddying gusto. The fundamental laws of nature, he tells us, have again and again revealed an inherent beauty at the heart of the universal system. He hopes to share this beauty with his readers: “Just as a graduate degree in art history is not a prerequisite for engaging with the world’s best art and finding a deeply rewarding experience,” he writes, “so I hope, in this book, to help you engage with Nature’s art.” For Wilczek, it is always Nature with a capital N, and here there are explicit overtones of anthropomorphism, as Nature with its creative powers is likened to human artistic legends such as Rembrandt, Mozart and Louis Armstrong.
‘A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design’ by Frank Wilczek (Penguin)
“To appreciate Nature’s art,” Wilczek tells us, “we must enter into her style with sympathy,” coming to understand not only the hallmarks of this style but also the dialect in which it is couched: mathematics. He thus offers us a history of the idea that the physical world is governed by mathematical laws, which, far from being arbitrary, seem prescribed by certain aesthetic principles, specifically symmetry, here defined as “a love of harmony, balance and proportion,” and economy, defined as “satisfaction in producing an abundance of effects from very limited means.”
The Pythagorean/Platonic impulse that Wilczek traces had its first brief flourishing in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but not until the scientific revolution did it truly effloresce, in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and their contemporaries. Today it culminates in a desire for a mathematical theory that would unite all the fundamental physical forces along with their associated particles.