Mon, Oct 19, 2015 - Page 9 News List

How new laws of physics can be used to recognize beauty

By Frank Wilczek

The 19th century German physicist Heinrich Hertz once described his feeling that James Clerk Maxwell’s equations, which depict the fundamentals of electricity and magnetism, “have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser … even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them.”

Not long after, Albert Einstein called Niels Bohr’s atomic model “the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought.”

More recently, the late US Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, describing his discovery of new laws of physics, said: “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”

Similar sentiments are all but universal among modern physicists.

Wishful thinking could never produce working iPhones, photographs of Pluto, or atomic bombs. Physics, as summarized in a handful of mathematically precise laws, indisputably works. Yet many things that “work” do not inspire the kind of admiration that the fundamental laws of nature do.

Their beauty is rooted, first, in the laws’ symmetry, here meaning the possibility of change without change — a precise yet almost mystical concept. Just as a circle can be rotated about its center at any angle, changing the position of each of its points without changing its form, symmetric laws apply to changed situations without changing or losing validity.

For example, special relativity asserts that the fundamental laws of physics remain the same when we view the world from a platform moving at constant velocity. Similarly, so-called time translation symmetry encodes the uniformity of physical law in time: Even as the universe ages, the laws remain the same.

The second source of beauty in the laws of physics is their productivity — what I call their exuberance. Just a handful of basic principles generates an astonishing wealth of consequences — everything in the physical world. You can write the equations of the core theories of physics — known as the standard model — quite comfortably on a T-shirt. To paraphrase Hertz, they give back far more than we put in.

It is important to say that the laws of physics need not necessarily have such marvelous properties. Consider this hypothetical situation: Developments in computer power, virtual reality and artificial intelligence enable the creation of self-aware beings whose “world” is, from our perspective, a programmed simulation. If a self-aware Super Mario began to analyze the laws of his world, he would find very little symmetry or productivity. Instead, he would find a vast collection of loosely connected, quirky rules, reflecting the whims of the programmer.

The beauty of physical law is too impressive to be accidental. It has led people, throughout history, to believe that some tasteful higher being created them and that they inhabit a consciously designed world, like Super Mario, but this is an extravagant hypothesis, which goes far beyond the facts it is meant to explain. Before adopting it, it is important to explore more economical alternatives.

The answer likely lies within people. Beautiful things are those in which people find pleasure and seek out. They are, in neurobiological terms, things that stimulate one’s reward system. That explains why parents tend to find their young children beautiful, and why adults are attracted to nubile models and their images. It makes evolutionary sense to reward such feelings.

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