Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect?

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As the literature for this Oxbridge 2005 conference notes, “C.S. Lewis once said, ‘the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.’” Lewis is not alone in his quest. While one might expect such company as writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers it might be surprising to discover a stellar contingent of Nobel Prize winners and other significant physicists along for the journey. It appears, as we will see in the following accounts, that beauty has long been the unsung companion of great discoveries in the physical sciences. Taking a look at the role beauty plays in the realms of both physics and theology could point the way to a place where Christian theology and the modern science of physics might have a conversation profitable to both disciplines.

Beauty and Physics
It is difficult to say exactly what role beauty plays in the realm of physical science. Does it function as a motivator, spurring the scientist on to true discoveries? This is what Nobel Laureate physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar suggests in his book of essays entitled, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science. Mathematician Henri Poincaré puts it this way in his book Science and Method, “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful: He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing.”1 If Poincaré is right then if there were no beauty, there would be no science.

One striking example of beauty’s motivating power comes from Hermann Weyl, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century. Weyl worked with Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey after they both fled Nazi Germany. He characterized his work in this way: “My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.”2

There are two other examples elicited from Freeman Dyson by Chandrasekhar: Weyl’s gauge theory of gravitation and his two-component relativistic wave equation of the neutrino. In both cases, he chose the “beautiful” over the “true,” and his formulations contradicted the accepted wisdom of the time but were later proven to be true. As Chandrasekhar puts it, “We have evidence, then, that a theory developed by a scientist, with an exceptionally well-developed aesthetic sensibility, can turn out to be true even if, at the time of its formulation, it appeared not to be so.”3 The beauty of Weyl’s work led him into new territory and revealed a truer understanding of the world. In this view it is the beauty of nature or the intuition’s perception of beauty that entices the scientist into the realm of true explanations for the phenomena of the universe.

Or does beauty function as that which confirms the truth of theories for which there may be no current means of experimentation? Ernst Peter Fischer, a German Science Historian, describes such an approach in his book, Beauty and the Beast: The Aesthetic Moment in Science. Fischer shows this use of beauty in his account concerning the acceptance of the Copernican model of the rotation of the earth around the sun. He observes that in the mid-nineteenth century when technology had finally developed to the point of being able to test Copernicus’s hypothesis and proved him right:

“…the event generated very little interest…no one needed measurements to be convinced of a heliocentric world…The Copernican model had already permeated their thinking…people accepted the new world-view because it was beautiful to them.”4

The beauty of Copernicus’ theory had confirmed to people its truth long before anyone had the technology to verify it.

Buckminster Fuller, visionary, inventor, and architect, is reported on more than one occasion to have described the function of beauty in his work this way, “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” For Fuller the beauty of a solution confirmed its truth.

Paul Dirac, a founder of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century, whose namesake equation predicted the existence of anti-matter, summed up his approach to physics and mathematics in this way, “…if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty into one’s equation, and if one has really sound insights, one is sure of a line of progress.”5 Sir John Polkinghorne, a doctor of both physics and theology, who studied under Dirac at Cambridge, said about him at a conference held in his honor, “Dirac had a great singleness of purpose, a lifelong search for beautiful equations.”6 This led him to make many significant advances in unifying the theories of relativity and electromagnetism. Without his discoveries we would have no cell phones or any other wireless communication today.

Werner Heisenberg, a 1932 Nobel Laureate, famous for his formulation of the Uncertainty Principle, provides us with one more interesting example of how beauty has accompanied great scientific discovery. He describes his experience of the moment when the key to quantum theory was revealed to him, in this way:

The energy principle had held for all the terms, and I could no longer doubt the mathematical consistency and coherence of the kind of quantum mechanics to which my calculations pointed. At first, I was deeply alarmed. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.7

Heisenberg knew that he had run into the truth, because his sense of the beauty of what he had seen was overpowering. The beauty confirmed the truth of his equations. In this case, Heisenberg’s experience of beauty also motivated him to more discovery as he “probed the wealth of the mathematical structure” displayed before him.

Chiara Nappi of the Institute for Advanced Study, in a book review of a Dirac biography for the American Scientist, states, “It is this same quest for beauty, unity, and consistency that fuels theoretical physics today.”8 Regardless of the place beauty occupies in the practice of physics, whether as a motivating or confirming characteristic, it is clear from the writings of many of scientists that the observation and perception of beauty plays a key role in the discovery of true explanations of the natural world. It would appear that beauty functions as sort of handmaiden to the truth in the process of discovery. She either ushers one into the presence of her master, or testifies to our place in the presence of greatness. If that be the case, then it might also be the case, as Chandrasekhar suggests in his work, that a mind trained or gifted with a strong aesthetic sense, one that can recognize beauty when she is revealed, is one that is particularly equipped to make the sorts of discoveries that form the foundations of our most profound and productive understandings of the universe. In other words, those who know beauty when they see it will be the best physicists. It might even be that those committed to seeking out the beautiful in their work will be those who come closest to, and may actually attain, the holy grail of all physics, the great Unified Theory of Everything.