A Beautiful Question

(PDF version)

The question that Frank Wilczek poses in this book sounds simple — “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” — but the answer is complicated. It’s a long “meditation”, as the Nobel laureate physicist calls it, on the idea of beauty as the organising principle of the universe, and also a eulogy on the importance of beauty as a source of inspiration for scientists past and present. 

One of the main concepts that threads through A Beautiful Question is that of “symmetry”. In mathematics and physics, writes Wilczek, symmetry is “Change without Change”. The equation X=Y provides a simple example: if you change X into Y and Y into X, it reads Y=X, which is different in form but the same in content. Modern physicists, Wilczek explains, work from symmetry towards truth: they propose equations with symmetry and then check whether nature uses them.

to see all the beauty in the world, Wilczek says, we have to engage with nature’s distinctive language because her artistic style is based on symmetry (harmony, balance and proportion) and economy (the production of abundance from limited means) — all expressed in mathematics.

According to Wilczek, the Core Theory embodies beautiful ideas, but they are strange and hidden. “It takes some imaginative growth, and some willing patience, to grasp their beauty,” he says.


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