Nobel laureate finds beauty in science and science in beauty

Frank Wilczek explores links between math and art


PERFECT HARMONY  Pythagoras described the mathematics of musical chords. In this 15th century woodcut, he is depicted playing bells tuned to mathematically defined intervals.

Franchino Gaffurio/Wikimedia Commons 

A Beautiful Question
Frank Wilczek
Penguin Press, $29.95

Frank Wilczek knows how to focus a book. A Beautiful Question applies the lessons of modern physics to one query: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” Or, “Is the world a work of art?”

His answer is yes. The exploration of the question makes the book worthwhile.

Wilczek, winner of a Nobel Prize for work on fundamental particles and forces, applies an encyclopedic grasp of modern physical science to illustrate how science’s description of nature coincides with humankind’s multifaceted views of beauty. Take music. Its power to evoke emotions and soothe the mind seems far beyond science. Yet the math describing music’s acoustic vibrations is closely related to formulas describing atoms. Something deep seems to connect the physical world’s foundations with the human mind’s perception of harmony. Mathematics somehow seals that connection.

Even ancient thinkers had suspected that mathematical principles infuse both artistic expression and the foundation of the physical world. Pythagoras related the math of musical harmony to the “music of the spheres” and said “all things are number.” Plato insisted that the physical world imperfectly embodies a primordial mathematical beauty.

As Wilczek shows, modern physics has verified and deepened the math-beauty link. Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, quantum physics and relativity theory have succeeded by relating mathematical harmony to physical reality. Today’s “Core Theory” of nature’s particles and forces (known generally as the “standard model”), for instance, is rooted in mathematical symmetries. And symmetry is “one of the hallmarks of nature’s artistic style,” Wilczek writes.

In exploring these notions, Wilczek surveys humankind’s current understanding of physical existence. He relates atoms and their parts, light and color, space and time, even the whole universe to the human conception of beauty.

It would be difficult for anyone who follows the exploration of Wilczek’s question to the end to dispute his answer. There is beauty embodied in the world. There is beauty in art, in music, in literature. And in nature’s equations. The beauty of those equations merges with the beauty of literature in Wilczek’s book. It’s a work of art. 

Editor’s Note: Wilczek is on the board of trustees of Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.

Buy A Beautiful Question from Sales generated through the links to contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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