Truth and Beauty: The Two Faces of Science

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© Sashkin

September 23, 2017 00:30 EDT

Scientists are often steered by their sense of beauty in developing new theories. 

Science is truth, candor, fidelity, damage and destruction — a loud and clear call of modern civilization — more so, in today’s context, the epoch of wonders and also devastation. It bids fair to a maxim erroneously accredited to Friedrich Nietzsche, that aesthetics, in art or science, is no longer a question of “I do my thing, you do yours.” Yet, in a point of fact, integrating artistic verdict with truth, prettiness and forthrightness is, in the times we now live in, more than obligatory than ever before. Not only because the United States, or our whole world, has woken up to reality and vowed to exterminate Frankenstein’s monsters that it once created or encouraged.

Scholar John Broomfield puts the idea in perspective: “We live in strange times — amazing and scary. We are bombarded with bizarre and unfamiliar images, and the interpretations we are given are contradictory and confusing.” The inference is obvious — of two postulates, one promising a marvelous future, the other environmental and human calamity. Not only that. The two paradigms also question the fundamental principle of science: the credo of beauty, or truth, aside from its perilous connotations.

It is apparent in popular parlance that every hypothesis of knowledge that is aesthetic is simply precise. Far from it. Not only does such a theory fail to deal with inter-subjective veracity, but it quells any objective facet of any kind of truth. So, a middle path, as our spiritual scholars advocate, would be a key pitch for bringing about a sense of balance in such a complex configuration. Of a composition, where beauty is the sign of truth, a panorama that does good for all and also endeavors to include the moment of truth, right from empiricism to constructivism and from relativism to aestheticism. In straightforward terms, this relates to a truly existential approach that would liberate them from their inconsistencies and place them, as it were, into a glittering multihued synthesis.

Mysterious Thing

It goes without saying that when any new scientific theory is put forward, scientists would want to know how close it is to the truth. Forget about conflicts, or objections, to any new percept. Here’s why: For some time, scientists have used experimental data to approximate how close a theory is to the truth. Yet not all theories could be weighed up in that manner for a surfeit of reasons. For instance, in areas such as string theory, cosmology and evolutionary biology, arriving at how close a theory is to the truth is next to impracticable.

On the other hand, just about anybody would be able to assess how attractive an object is. The conspicuous, or key, features of the object in question are promptly accessible to most of us. It also corresponds to basic constituents required to scrutinize the object with artistic judgment: one that delivers a decisive assertion of its beauty. It is not so simple, though. Because such a subjective ascent or descent may make us marvel over whether we’d all use our aesthetic perceptions at the drop of a hat to determine how a scientific theory is closest to truth.

As Roger Penrose summed it up pithily: “It is a mysterious thing, in fact, how something that looks attractive may have a better chance of being true than something which looks ugly. I have noticed on many occasions (in my own work) where there might, for example, be two guesses that could be made as to the solution of a problem, and in the first case I’d think how nice it would be if it were true; whereas in the second case I’d not care very much about the result even if it were true. So often, in fact, it turns out that the more attractive possibility is the true one.”

It is not that all scientific revolution theories have a set of connections with aesthetically pioneering attributes. It is also not exceptional that most scientists have called several old and new theories — when these were first put forward — ugly. Many astronomers, for instance, regarded Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motions as unappealing because Kepler’s blueprint portrayed planetary orbits as ellipses, not a grouping of circles. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was, likewise, detested by many of his confrères as being aesthetically unpleasant — for postulating action at a distance. In recent times, quantum electrodynamics was regarded as dull for relying far too much on non-standard mathematical operations for renormalization. The list is endless. Yet one central fact remains: Just as such revolutionary theories built up their remarkable track record, they were all, slowly but surely, declared as aesthetically appealing. As Francis Bacon epitomized, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

Too Pretty Not to Be True

Let’s look at the whole credo differently. It is construed that physicists, for example, aren’t the only scientific group to be steered by their sense of beauty in developing new theories. They have learned, to their original advantage, how to foresee the beauty of nature at its most fundamental level, just like geneticists. To illustrate a classic archetype: When Rosalind Franklin “learned” of Francis Crick and James D. Watson’s model of the DNA, she “accepted the fact that the structure was too pretty not to be true.” It was a basic proclamation that beauty was, indeed, a tangible gauge of truth in scientific theories. Hence, you may well ask: What is the corroboration for this proposal?

Most scientists discern objective properties of theories from the subjective sense of beauty in considering a theory. However, not all scientists concur as to what aesthetic properties a theory must have to persuade one as pretty. Yet one thing is clear: They are often in accord with beauty in theories that include simple mathematical equations, the grandeur of truth and beauty of the universe, symmetries of nature, an alluring model’s basic face, etc. In other words, it all leads to a noteworthy ensemble, also an elementary or scientific variation that explains why scientists are occupied — albeit unwittingly or partly instinctively — in a methodical, inductive (re)search for aesthetic properties that make up the presage that beauty is truth, although they are also just as much concerned about the wonders of technological advance falling into ominous hands.

There hangs a saga — a tale of what we have come to, thanks to scientific contradiction. It’s a celebration and also repudiation that is sure going to dazzle and perturb each of us and our future generations, no more, no less.

*[This article was updated on September 26, 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Sashkin /

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