A Beautiful Question
By Frank Wilczek (MIT)
On June 8, 2015 theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek (Nobel Prize in physics, 2004 for a fundamental discovery*), gave a science lecture on the theme A Beautiful Question - Finding nature’s deep secrets at Uppsala University.
On June 10. 2015, Robert Gilchrist, Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Sweden, hosted a reception for Dr. Wilczek and his wife Betsy with the physics members of the Swedish Academy, the financial sponsors and others invited. Below is a synopsis of Dr. Wilczek's lecture.
Does the world embody beautiful ideas?
Our deepest and most successful scientific description of the physical world is objective and factual, while beauty is subjective and emotional. In reality, however, science and beauty are not at odds.
Physics leans heavily on beauty as a source of inspiration. Indeed, as the frontiers of physics move toward situations where intuition based on previous experience is unreliable and experimentation is difficult, beauty has been an unfailing guidepost.
The quantum revolution reveled what matter is. The theoretical structure commonly known as the “standard model,” or the Core, is a set of equations that essentially completes our analysis of matter. Using it, we can deduce what sorts of atomic nuclei, atoms, molecules — and stars — exist.
On its face, the Core is a collection of mathematical equations. But its equations are special; they are favored by symmetry.
In science, an object has symmetry if it can be transformed without changing it. For example, if we rotate a circle around its center each point on it moves, but the circle as a whole remains the same. The same concepts apply to physical laws, and to the equations that encode them. Perhaps the most profound discovery of twentieth-century physics is that Nature operates according to fantastically symmetric laws.
Nature, regarded as an artist, has an identifiable style. The basic hallmarks of that style are symmetry and exuberance.
Early in the Renaissance artists posed and solved the problem of perspective. It is a problem in the mathematics of symmetry: how to render an unchanging object, as we change our vantage point. These discoveries inspired an outburst of creative activity. The Delivery of the Keys (pictured above) is a famous, joyful masterpiece by Perugino, from that time. It is, manifestly, an exuberant exploration of symmetry and perspective.
In this and other examples, we find the answer to the original question: Yes. The deep structure of the physical world clearly does embody beauty, in forms that have long been prized for their own sake, and celebrated in art.
The Core’s empirical success is overwhelming and its beauty considerable, but it still shows some annoying near-misses. However, different, expanded systems of equations can be utilized to remove those flaws. The new equations have more symmetry, and they explain striking facts that the Core ascribes to coincidence, to make a description of the world more beautiful.
The new, expanded systems of equations predict the existence of fundamentally new kinds of particles, which have not yet been observed in experiments, such as axions, which could well account for the "dark matter" we need in our current explanations of cosmology.
In building the Core, beauty proved a reliable and indispensable guide. The visions of Pythagoras and Plato have been over-fulfilled, with beauty transcending any they could imagine. Will trust in Nature's fundamental beauty continue to be rewarded? Soon we shall see.
* In physics, a fundamental discovery is one that is at the core of our understanding of the properties of nature.
Buy Dr. Wilczek's new book, A Beautiful Question; finding nature's deep secrets, on Amazon
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