Beauty Is Physics’ Secret Weapon
We recognize beauty when we see it, right? Michelangelo’s David, Machu Picchu, an ocean sunrise. Could we say the same about the cosmos itself? Frank Wilczek, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks we can. And should. In his new book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, Wilczek lays out his case for the elegance of mathematics and the coherence of nature’s underlying laws.
Was beauty important to Einstein and the other founders of modern physics?
Absolutely, although they didn’t always think about it explicitly. Einstein and [James Clerk] Maxwell—and going back to Newton—all had this instinct for breaking down problems into small parts, with the idea that they would be comprehensible, and then you could build up to more complicated things that would have this kind of exuberance. Einstein was the decisive figure in bringing this second aspect of the beauty of nature—symmetry—to new heights. The theory of relativity is very much in the mold of change without change. You can look at the world from a moving platform and different things rushing at you or away from you will look quite different, but the same laws will apply as in the stationary frame. That’s the essence of the theory of relativity. You change the way things look and yet the laws are still valid.
The interview degenerates later into stuff like:
Do you think science will ever crack the fundamental problem of how we get our mental world out of material stuff?
Yes, I do. How should I say it? I think we’re maybe 90 percent of the way there.
You’re an optimist!
No, I think I’m just interpreting things correctly. Not long ago it seemed very mysterious that patterns of ones and zeros could encode how you do computations; for instance, how you play chess. But now we can design systems that work on ones and zeros that do something very much like thinking. Increasingly you have meaningful interactions with systems like Siri that are just manipulating patterns of ones and zeros. Those ones and zeros are embodied in physical objects, namely transistors, so that’s very close to saying that mind is embodied in physical objects. These are concrete objects that we designed. More.
Who designed? How? If he is right, we can’t know beauty. That is, beauty can only be seen from a perspective that is not fully part of the thing itself.
What does “90% of the way there” mean in the context?
One thing you can be sure of, he won’t be asked to explain. Readers, what would you ask him?
<See also: What great physicists have said about immateriality and consciousness
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