Taking Beauty Seriously

 

Bernini

 

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.

Buckminster Fuller

 

The unasked question
I thought it would be fun (and possibly interesting) to consider the relevance of beauty to what we do. Not least of all because in the hallways of marketingland at least, it’s a word that rarely gets uttered. Is is disruptive, radical, new interesting…. All these questions and more get asked. Again and again. But perhaps there is another question we should be bearing in mind. However much it might make some squeamish: Is it beautiful?

This post is admittedly a long one (maybe I should start calling them essays) but since my subject matter has for centuries challenged and exercised poets and philosophers, I think I’m a little excused in taking the time and space. See what you think.

 

The hunger for pattern and coherence
We are programmed to make sense of the world. Within that small fraction of information our consciousness lets in, we look for shapes, patterns and connections – and if we don’t find patterns, we’ll invent them.

Yet the compelling, sustaining master narratives that once reproduced reality and rendered the world understandable for us are in short supply – or at least short on persuasiveness. Many of us now live in a world where the old narratives no longer provide a reliably authoritative and universal vision and explanation of ‘Everything’. 

Unsurprisingly in this environment it is easy for our lives to feel arbitrary and contingent, for us to see ourselves as mere mortal bundles of DNA, appetite and instinct, not much different from the rest of nature. Not only is coherence harder to keep a hold on then, but finding a sense of shape, order and meaning is made more challenging by the way in which our modern lives stretch and continue to extend out ever more horizontally.

The forces of urbanization have for some time been expanding our social lives out horizontally. Our lives are no longer housed within all encompassing, closed communities. We begin  – aided and abetted by technology – to live horizontally, not vertically, spreading ourselves across open networks of friends, colleagues and passing strangers. 

Previously the phenomena of tradition and community drew boundaries that worked to simplify and reduce the world. They held the plenitude of the world’s possibilities at bay, and rendered reality graspable. The explosion of information however, has dismantled the possibility of grasping and understanding our reality. It is not longer contained but spreads out horizontally. We no longer inhabit one all encompassing truth , but must contend with a whole host of different and competing realities and points of view.

Despite the scope for adventure, play, pleasure, understanding, expansion, growth and transformation that the modern world offers us, we are newly and painfully aware of the precariousness of our fate. The destiny of the world not longer rests in the hand of the divine, but in the hands of us fickle, capricious, imperfect mortals. 

In his book Abolition the anti-nuclear campaigner Jonathan Schell wrote of the profound impact of nuclear weapons had on our place in the scheme of things: 

“For now human beings, engaged, as always in the ambitions and disputes of their particular place and time, can end the human story in all places for all time. The eternal has been placed at stake in the temporal realm, and the infinite has been delivered into the care of finite human beings.”

A number of seminal events in the twentieth century illustrate what horrors we are truly capable of, as Frankl hauntingly cautions us in the closing lines of his Man’s Search for Meaning: “Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” 

Since both Frankl and Schell wrote these words, we can now confidently add climate change to our potential agents of Armageddon. So whether by whim, accident, selfishness, design or evil, the end of all things now lies firmly in our grasp and the sense of being part of a master plan is undone. If we render the world uninhabitable just because we like our patio heaters, refrigerators and cheap flights to warm beaches, what on earth is the meaning of anything? What are we doing here?

Any sense of destination and certainty is in short supply. The Enlightenment radically changed our position and role in the world. We are now seekers and inventors, not the inhabitants of a preordained reality of old. The very nature of modern life means that in many areas of our lives there are no authorities that decide and determine outcomes for us. 

We inhabit a reality that’s newly and increasingly open-ended. No-one knows where anything is heading. In his cult novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams made affectionate but pointed fun of our hunger conclusion and certainty. In their quest to discover the answer to “Life, the Universe, and Everything”, a group of hyper-intelligent “pan-dimensional beings” build the supercomputer Deep Thought, expressly for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be… the mystifying ‘42’.

Unsurprisingly then, we want coherence, resolution, depth and perfection. My argument here is that we want – and need – beauty in our lives. Beauty has got a rather raw deal over the past few decades. It often gets dismissed with the cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty, we are taught, is what we want it to be. It is entirely personal, individual and subjective. In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf famously demanded that we recognize beauty to be but a fiction at best, and at worst an enslaving and debasing currency. In marketingland, Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’ exploited the comforting thought that beauty is whatever we wanted it to be, that there is no single standard or measure of beauty.

It is not my intention to put forward a universal theory of beauty here. From Aristotle to Nietzsche there is enough literature, argument and opinion on the subject and I’m humble enough not to try to take my place amongst them. However, it is necessary to reassert that – whatever the naysayers have told us, – beauty is no mere solipsistic concept. On this, I am with Scruton who rejects the notion that beauty is but a subjective experience: 

“For a free being, there is a right feeling, right experience, right and enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it.”

What I do want to do in the following pages is show how the experience of coherence, rightness and resolution are recurring aspects of both the creation and experience of what we call beauty and argue that in this sense, beauty is a core characteristic of successful ideas. It’s essential to their magic.

 

The pursuit and experience of rightness
In the experiencing, assessing and critiquing of art there is much talk and judgement of beauty. Yet the reality seems to be that very few artists or creators consciously pursue ‘beauty’ or ‘self-expression’ in the day-to-day reality of their work. 

Instead, if we listen to and observe them, what emerges is that they are motivated to achieve a sense of what they might call ‘rightness’, that sense of getting things to fit and work together seamlessly. As the art historian Gombrich puts it:

“It is only when we understand what [the artist] means by that modest little word ‘right’ that we begin to understand what artists are really after… Once [the artist] has succeeded we all feel that he has achieved something to which nothing could be added, something which is right – and example of perfection in our very imperfect world.”

According to the photographer Robert Adams, for example, the characteristic of great pictures is that nothing is extraneous, and that everything within the frame is connected. Yet the more one looks, the more evident it is that not just the artist but all creators and originators strive for this perfection and sense of rightness – whatever their field of endeavour.

If we look outside the realms of artistic endeavour then, we find designers, economists and engineers – those supposedly uncontaminated by the pursuit of such fluffy, emotional and superficial things as beauty – striving to achieve just the same effect and experience. The noted economist W. Brian Arthur, for example, in his examination of the nature of technology and innovation, sees good design as being just like good poetry, in the rightness and appropriateness of each part chosen. This is more than just a desire for tidiness, anybody who has stood before a work of art knows that the experience it offers goes way beyond this sense of appreciating wholeness. 

The philosopher Charles Taylor writes of the sense of epiphany that art provides:

“The epiphany is our achieving contact with something, where this contact either fosters and/or itself constitutes a spiritually significant fulfilment or wholeness.” 

Similarly the author and journalist Christopher Boooker has noted in his book The Basic Plots:

“Any work of art which succeeds can make us feel mysteriously more alive, by connecting us with the sense of a perfection beyond the limitations of our own ego.”

In experiencing this sense of wholeness we achieve contact with something that is far from oversupplied in our day-to-day lives. And it is precisely this that, according to the photographer Robert Adams, gives art its power to move us:

“The reason that becomes so moving is that the artist finally says that the form that he or she has found in that frame is analogous to form in life. The coherence in that frame points to a wider coherence in life as a whole. Why is that important? I think art is the sworn enemy of nihilism. And nihilism is a great downward tug that we all feel.”

I recall one journey I made through Rajasthan in India. We’d trekked through the barrenness of the Thar Desert on camels and spent the night sleeping on the dunes. At some point my travelling companion nudged me awake and whispered “Look up.” I opened my eyes to the chilly night sky and gasped. It was as if I was floating in space amidst an infinite number of stars. In that moment I felt I grasped  – though I could never put it into words – my own infinitesimally small part in the universe. There was a point, it seemed in that moment. There was a pattern.

Art and all manner of human creation can provoke the same reaction. As Adams commented in an interview, what the artist attempts to give us is “a reminder of those rare times when you did see the world so that everything seemed to fit  – so that things had consequence.” The form that beauty supplies us with matters so much because it combats the nagging fear we’re surrounded by meaningless chaos.

This same supply of form explains the sense of beauty and satisfaction that scientific enquiry can provide. Science can render our reality intelligible, it can reassure us that nature is indeed something we can grasp and understand, and allow us to cast aside mystery and divine the elegant mechanics that lie behind its phenomena. Thus Einstein’s quest in later life was for a so-called unified field theory – a theory capable of describing nature’s forces within a single, all-encompassing, coherent framework.

 

Paradise and invented worlds
So we have seen how the act of creation at its heart involves choice and judgement, of selecting from the vast and bewildering array of options and arranging them into a new combination or recipe. By its very nature therefore in pursuing rightness the act of creation must exclude and eliminate. And this act of exclusion and choice is powerful. It is an expression and, crucially, an act of judgement. In holding the chaotic swirl of possibilities at bay the successful act of creation says to us “This is what matters. The rest does not.” All creation draws boundaries. The experience of perfection and rightness must by definition, exclude most of the world.

The notion that the experience of the beautiful and sublime must take place within a closed and self-sustaining system has deep and ancient roots. It is telling that the word paradise is derived from the Old Persian apiri-daeza, meaning a walled orchard. Paradise is – before anything else, before anything more fantastical or spiritual – a garden. This insight gives us, a fresh and useful perspective on what the experience – and use – of beauty might be. It is deliberately walled. It has a purposeful structure to it that protects it and holds the chaos of the outside world at bay. In doing so, within its cultivated borders it gives us a place to visit or inhabit, a place that can nurture and sustain us. It gives us a small, ideal world.

Of course that invented ideal world, that paradise, need not be as physical and tangible as a walled garden. In his examination of the nature and meaning of music for example, Scruton suggests that the power and value of music is that it allows us to experience a comprehensive and completely realized world:

“Instrumental music… provides us with a paradigm of order: in the great works of pure music gestures follow logically, completing one another. The musical logic shows us what it is like to live something completely and to its conclusion… it is from instrumental music that we derive our most overwhelming experience of form.”

To experience music then is to step into a fully-formed, fully-realized and coherent world. It gives us a world in which everything has a place and everything makes sense, a world with purpose. Music allows us to experience at a very deep level an absence of randomness and contingency – the very things that seem to so trouble our everyday lives. Creating beauty demands that we feel a sense of rightness; and to create that rightness is to create a self-contained world. 

We can see this phenomenon at work elsewhere too. For many of  us mathematics may be a largely invisible world yet even here we can see the workings of beauty. Bertrand Russell commented on the beauty that was found in ideal worlds created in mathematics: 

“It seems to me now that mathematics is capable of an artistic excellence as great as that of any music, perhaps greater; not because the pleasure it gives (although very pure) is comparable, either in intensity or in the number of people who feel it, to that of music, but because it gives in absolute perfection that combination, characteristic of great art, of godlike freedom, with the sense of inevitable destiny; because, in fact, it constructs an ideal world where everything is perfect but true.”

Science too  – and as I will examine in more detail later – strives for the construction of a perfectly coherent whole – and ideal world where everything is perfect. It attempts to render the world coherent and comprehensible. As Bronowksi puts it: “Science is an attempt to represent the known world as a closed system with a perfect formulation.” Successful ideas fight the apparent chaos and plenitude of the world.

It is important to recognise that this beauty is not merely the output of a process of reduction and elimination. Beauty is not the same thing as minimalism. While the paradise of the apiri-daeza – the walled orchard I spoke of earlier – gives shape and order, shapes and orders complex living organisms. Beauty does not deny or eradicate complexity. 

Perhaps this is what Einstein meant when he spoke of how everything should be simpler, but not simple. Beauty organises, gives shape, order and structure to the complex – and in doing so, it preserves rather than eliminates the underlying complexity.

 

The persuasiveness of beauty
So let us now turn to how these perfect, but true worlds make us feel and consider the experience of rightness. At the most basic level when we experience this sense sense of completeness we feel that nothing could be changed without changing or spoiling the whole.  That feeling is both incredibly seductive and persuasive. Beauty slips past our instincts for scepticism, cynicism, and disbelief, disarms our habit of irony and satisfies our hunger for harmony and coherence. 

It is telling that for the designer Alberto Alessi, the first criterion for assessing the potential of a new design idea is the degree to which people say “Oh, what a beautiful object.” As Alessi put it in an interview, this response “represents the creation of a relationship between the object and the individual.” 

Even when one looks beyond the realm of creation and to the fields of mathematics and science, we still find humans pursuing and valuing beauty. The prominent English mathematician G. H. Hardy, expressed it thus: 

“The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.” 

Similarly, in his introduction to Physics for Poets, the physicist Robert March notes that:

“A scientist…is supposed to be looking for the truth about nature. But not all truths are equal. Some we call deep truths, and these are the ones that are also beautiful. An idea must be more than right – it must also be pretty if it is to create much excitement in the world of science. For the search for truth is not simply a matter of discovering facts. You must also understand their significance and then persuade others that your way of looking at them is valid. It is always easier to persuade people to believe in something new when they find it beautiful, especially if it runs counter to their established beliefs.”

And this is not just conjecture. Empirical evidence for the persuasiveness of beauty comes from mathematicians at the University of Bergen in Norway, including Rolf Reben and Karoline Mitterndorfer, who recently reported their findings from their study of beauty in mathematics. 

The researchers constructed a series of additions, consisting of dots. For example, 12 dots plus 21 dots equalled 33 dots. Half of the additions were correct; the others were wrong, for example, 12 dots plus 21 dots equalled 27 dots. Half of the additions had symmetric dot patterns, the other half asymmetric patterns. These additions were presented only briefly and participants without training in mathematics had to decide immediately after the addition disappeared whether it was correct or incorrect. 

It turned out participants were more likely to judge symmetric additions than asymmetric additions to be correct. As this was also the case when additions in fact were incorrect, the finding cannot be explained simply by the fact that symmetric additions were easier to count or to estimate: In this case, symmetric additions that were incorrect would have been less likely to be judged correct. 

Science Daily concluded that:

“The results clearly show that participants used symmetry as an indication to correctness, or beauty as truth. The authors have shown that people who do not have enough time to analyze the problem use heuristic cues in order to assess the correctness of a proposed solution. This simple setup serves as a model for the more complicated situation where a mathematician has discovered a plausible solution to a problem and now wants a quick assessment of whether this solution “feels” right. These findings suggest a solution to the mystery why beauty serves as a cue for truth in the context of mathematical discovery.”

Perhaps one of the most celebrated instances of the persuasiveness of beauty took place when the scientists Francis Crick and James D. Watson wrote themselves into the history books by proposing the famous double helix structure of DNA. As their paper in Nature put it:

“We wish to put forward a radically different structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. This structure has two helical chains each coiled round the same axis… It has not escaped our  notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

It was already known that the substance which carried genes from generation to generation was DNA but scientists did not know was how these simple chemicals combined to carry the vast amount of information required to recreate a living thing. Crick and Watson were not the only scientists working on this problem and found themselves in an environment of fierce competition to be the first to come forward with the right answer. 

The evidence in favour of their proposed double-helix structure was neither conclusive nor expansive, but Crick and Watson were anxious to lay claim to it quickly. While they did not necessarily have definitive evidence to prove their case, one of the reasons for their conviction that they had the right structure was its aesthetic, emotional appeal. It just felt right. 

Years later in an anniversary interview, Watson told the BBC they’d concluded that their solution was probably true “because it was so pretty.” Its beauty meant that it was simple and its elegance meant it could be easily explained.

 

The power of beauty
We live, argues  the psychologist Nancy Etcoff in an age of ugly beauty: 

“Many intellectuals would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential. Since it explains nothing, solves nothing, teaches us nothing, it should not have a place in intellectual discourse. And we are supposed to breath a collective sigh of relief. After all, the concept of beauty has become an embarrassment.”

Yet beauty isn’t just decoration. Nor is beauty merely a solipsistic and socially constructed notion that is entirely down to individual judgement and taste. Beauty does indeed have function. We have seen how the experience of beauty satisfies a deep human need for order, meaning and coherence. We have also seen the persuasive power of beauty, and its ability to convince us. Beauty is also a source of power and effectiveness. 

Beauty is not something separate from an idea’s functioning and effectiveness. It has real and practical value, and if we want to test out the utility of beauty, the fields of mathematics, science and technology provide us with fertile testing grounds. Surely, many might say, these are pragmatic, utilitarian and objective undertakings, with no room or role for the froth and frippery of beauty. Certainly many of us would not regard mathematics, science or technology as aesthetic pursuits, but in many ways that is precisely what they are. Achieving or uncovering beauty in these fields is a measure of success. 

Beauty is for example, a vital, necessary input for powerful technology. And it is frequently both the cause and consequence of pursuing powerful and effective solutions. As David Gelernter, the professor of computer science at Yale University, argues, the pursuit of beauty guides scientists and technologists towards truth and effectiveness, toward stronger and more useful machines. Technologists look for beauty, because it is in beauty that the marriage of simplicity and power is to be found. 

This notion of beauty as the marriage of power and simplicity is echoed by the physicist Professor Brian Greene. For Professor Greene an elegant solution to a problem is one which is as powerful as it is simple. “It’s a solution” as he put it in an interview, “which cuts to the heart of an important problem with such clarity that it almost leaves no doubt that the solution is either right or at least on the right track."

It is impossible to speak of beauty and elegance in computing without mentioning Apple.  Apple Computing is famous for having elevated the standard of design in computing and for having brought a degree of elegance to a world that hitherto seemed only to think in grey and in straight lines. In an interview with L’Uomo Vogue, Jonathan Ive, the Vice President of Industrial Design, described Apple’s design approach as being one of trying to achieve the most with the very least. The goal for Ive was to develop solutions characterized by simplicity and clarity.

I talked earlier of how beauty does not deny or eradicate complexity, rather it organises, gives shape, order and structure to the complex. The graphic designer, visual artist and computer scientist John Maeda in his examination of the laws of simplicity, characterizes the act of organization as making a system of many appear fewer. The controls on the Apple iPod are a good example of this marriage of power and simplicity. All the function actions – play, pause, stop, backwards, forwards, scroll, select – are integrated into one single, simple control. One control with many functions. Simple but powerful.

However, beauty in computing and technology is about much more than the appearance and interface of a device. As David Gelernter demonstrates, the algorithms – the sets of instructions for carrying out procedures or solving problems – that drive computer programmes need to be both powerful and simple.  Powerful algorithms run quickly without requiring too much machine memory. Simple algorithms are easier to capture in software, easier to programme correctly, understand, and improve upon. It is this combination of power and simplicity that makes for what Gelernter terms ‘machine beauty’. It is no accident that the best algorithms are the beautiful ones. 

If the pursuit of beauty drives us and our progress forwards, ugliness and the absence of elegance in technology eventually lead to its demise. Professor Arthur has described how in order to circumvent deficiencies, handle anticipated exceptions, and extend a piece of technology’s capabilities, a process of so-called structural deepening naturally takes place. In this process, additional parts and assemblies are added to work around the limitations. Inevitably, the structure becomes more and more complex as the additions build up. This is a natural part of technology’s evolution and development. It begins as something simple and develops to become increasingly complex. Eventually however, that complexity becomes a hinderance and the technology cannot be stretched  any further. And at that stage elegance intervenes as it becomes superseded by a new, and therefore simpler technology. And so the cycle begins again.

 

Beauty, revelation and truth
We’ve long suspected that there is some kind of relationship between beauty and truth – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” wrote the English poet John Keats. But what exactly does that mean? Is there really a connection between truth and beauty?

Keats’ contemporary, Samuel Coleridge, once opined that: "Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science." This – the division between art and science – is a familiar and oft-made distinction. Symptomatic of the divide that we now live with, what had hitherto been the South Kensington Museum in London in 1861 became two separate museums, one of art and one of science. Art and science now glare at each other over a cultural no-man’s land. One is treated as rigorous, objective, and engaged in the act of dispassionate discovery. The other as subjective, individualistic, and unaccountable to any sense of practicality and rigour. Different worlds indeed. 

My argument here is to counter this divide – to argue that the scientific and the artistic impulse are connected at a very deep level. While their means are different, I will show how they are united in their desire to grasp or reveal some kind of order and truth. And how in this quest for truth, beauty plays a vital role for both artistic and scientific ideas.

For scientists, beauty is an important measure of truth. Quite contrary to what we so often hear about beauty, it can and does teach us something. It can reveal the truth. Some examples from the worlds of mathematics and science – mathematical proofs, super-string theory, super-synergy theory and the discovery of the structure of DNA – will illustrate just how important the quest for beauty is in leading us towards truth.

Let us begin with the world of mathematics. Proofs are at the heart of mathematics. Constructed as a series of steps, each of which is a consequence of the preceding one, a proof works as a logical argument that establishes the truth of a statement or ‘theorem’ beyond doubt. A successful proof provides both certainty and revelation – it does not just demonstrate that something is true, but why it is true. And even here, in this supposedly dispassionate and abstract field, we find that beauty plays a vital role. The renowned expert on creativity and education Sir Ken Robinson, for example, recounts asking a professor of mathematics how he assessed PhDs in pure maths. The professor told him that they were normally right, and that originality was a key factor. But for the professor there was another key factor, and that was the elegance and beauty of proof. 

What Sir Ken Robinson’s anecdote reveals is that what counts for the “success” of a proof is not only the final result, but also the arrangement and presentation of the proof – to make it transparent, evident and crucially, compelling.  Of course as we have already seen, the beauty of a theorem can give it the kind of weight and persuasiveness that an inelegant, complicated theorem lacks. 

However, the purpose and value of beauty in mathematics goes further than just making for persuasive argument. Gian-Carlo Rota – who was the only MIT faculty member to hold the impressive title of Professor of Applied Mathematics and Philosophy – concluded that while mathematicians talk about beauty, what they actually want is enlightenment, and that when they describe a theorem as beautiful what they mean is that it is enlightening.

Albert Einstein worked unsuccessfully for three decades to come up with a unified theory of physics that would embrace and reconcile all of nature’s forces and materials within a single, coherent theoretical structure. As Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University and Cornell University puts it: “Einstein wanted to illuminate the workings of the universe with a clarity never before achieved, allowing us all to stand in awe of its sheer beauty and elegance.”  

Similarly, George Johnson in his his biography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (discoverer of quarks) writes of our abiding conviction and desire to prove that the universe is a beautiful one:

"It is sometimes said that the cathedrals of the late twentieth century are the giant particle accelerators, monuments to the belief – far from obvious on its face – that buried beneath the rough surface of the world we inhabit is a crystalline order so beautiful and subtle that the mind can barely grasp it."

Both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein believed that nature loves simplicity.  Indeed it was Einstein's belief in the essential order of nature that prompted him first to investigate the mystery of light, and to arrive at his theory of relativity. So if the universe is indeed a coherent whole (even if we are only just beginning to truly comprehend its mysterious workings), then perhaps it does indeed stand to reason that any explanation of it must reflect its fundamental elegance. 

Furthermore, it is perhaps no surprise to learn that scientists actively pursue solutions that are beautiful – simple, coherent and elegant – because beauty guides us towards the truth. The development of the theory of supersymmetry is symptomatic of this impulse to find beauty in the universe. Basic calculations show that the smallest bits of matter in the universe – or fundamental particles – should actually be some billion, billion, billion times heavier than what has been observed. Wanting to account for this discrepancy and get to a more coherent picture of the universe, physicists have invented the theory of supersymmetry to account for the lightness of matter. This theory predicts that each kind of subatomic particle has a so-called super-partner, a heavier, ghostly partner that has almost identical properties. As Gelernter puts it, having come up with the theory – super-synergy – they then set out to locate the objects whose existence the beauty of the universe demanded. 

Leroy Hood – one of the world's leading scientists in molecular biotechnology and genomics – has described the satisfaction that comes with wresting elegant theories from complexity:

“Well, I think it's a part of my natural enthusiasm for everything, but what I've been impressed with in science over my twenty-one years is the absolute conflict between, on the one hand, as we come to learn more and more about particular biological systems there is a simple elegant beauty to the underlying principles, yet when you look into the details it's complex, it's bewildering, it's kind of overwhelming, and I think of beauty in the sense of being able to extract the fundamental elegant principles from the bewildering array of confusing details, and I've felt I was good at doing that, I enjoy doing that.”

The curving geometrical form of space that the general theory of relativity offers us is , unfortunately incompatible with the frantic, microscopic behavior of the universe that quantum mechanics gives us. Yet both theories are right. So how can they co-exist? For the physicist Professor Brian Greene so-called string theory  – which posits that the fundamental ingredients of nature are one-dimensional oscillating filaments known as strings – provides a means of reconciling the otherwise incompatible laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Indeed in string theory, quantum mechanics and general relatively are not irreconcilable, but actually require one another for the theory to work. 

For Greene, string theory reconciles the physics of big things with the physics small things “in such a sleek manner that it is quite breathtaking. And the term elegant really describes that kind of solution.” While it is still at this stage just a theory lacking empirical proof yet, string theory owes its existence to our deep-seated discomfort with complexity and contradiction and the ancient human quest to reveal a beautiful, elegant, coherent universe.

The scientific impulse that we have examined here is one of seeking to reveal and understand the workings of the universe, whether that is at an unimaginably big scale, or an unimaginably small scale. And as we have seen, the beauty of their explanations and theories is for a great many scientists a key measure of their success. Not just because beauty is persuasive, but because it is believed that the universe is – even if we cannot fully comprehend its entirety yet – fundamentally coherent, predictable and elegant. As Einstein put it, in a letter to fellow-scientist Max Born, “You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order.” Beauty of course is no guarantee of truth. The history of science is riddled with elegant explanations and theorems that in time came to be exposed as false. Yet there can be no truth without beauty.

When we turn to the realm of artistic endeavour, it is clear that the artistic impulse is in many respects little different from the scientific impulse. It too, wants to create or reveal some kind of truth. Consider for example, Sian Ede’s description of the work of the scientific community:

“Scientists weave incredible stories, invent extraordinary hypotheses and ask difficult questions about the meaning of life. They have insights into the workings of our bodies and minds that challenge the way we construct our identities and selves. They create visual images, models and scenarios that are gruesome, baffling and beguiling. They say and do things that are ethically and politically challenging and shocking.”

She could have been describing the work of the artistic community, not the scientific. And this is precisely the point. In the quest for truth and enlightenment, both the artist and the scientist are engaged in acts of visualising, reinventing, re-presenting, storytelling, hypothesizing and questioning. The creation of something beautiful – whatever form it may take – comes about through a process of deliberate choice, judgement, and ordering. It is precisely because it orders and selects things in this way that artistic beauty lets us see things differently, through new eyes.   Art in its beauty reinvents the world so that we see it more clearly. 

To recap, beauty gives shapes and order to complexity. Scientific and technological beauty does not eradicate or deny complexity, instead, it organises, gives shape, order and structure to the complex – and in doing so it preserves rather than eliminates the underlying complexity. This  approach finds itself mirrored in the work of the artist. As the photographer Robert Adams has noted, the point of art is not to make something that replicates life. Rather, he argues, it is “to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can therefore clarify it.”  And as Scruton has argued, beauty succeeds in lifting us out of our immediate awareness of things and gives us something new with which to compare our current experience with.

Beauty can in this way challenge us to look at the banal and familiar as if it were for the first time. Van Gogh’s series of paintings of sunflowers, for example, render foreign what is actally an incredibly familiar object. It is as if we look at sunflowers and see the colour yellow for the very first time.  Equally, beauty can give us fresh, new insight into human experience. Picasso’s Guernica succeeds in conveying the horror of modern warfare as if we have not already been oversupplied with it by the modern glut of newsreel footage, photographic eyewitnesses, first-hand accounts, and Hollywood fictionalisation. It reveals the horror afresh because the presentation of it is so very unfamiliar. 

Beauty then, through its invented worlds allows us to rediscover the joy and consolation of form and therefore meaning in our own lives. As Adams puts it, we judge art: 

“By whether it reveals to us important Form that we ourselves have experienced but to which we have not paid adequate attention. Successful art rediscovers Beauty for us.”

For Picasso the purpose of art was as he put it, the washing of the dust of daily life off our souls. Put another way. we need the beauty of ideas to reveal and rediscover  the ancient truths about what it is to be human. As T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘East Coker’:

There is only the fight to recover what
has been lost
And found and lost again and again… 

 

The beauty of ideas
So we can at last cast aside the notion that beauty is merely a solipsistic, subjective, socially-constructed concept. Like David Gelernter, we can reject the notion that beauty is socially constructed:  

“If I believe that the beauty sense is a mere social construction, tumbled like trash before the passing breeze of fashion, I am forced to deny that it could possibly have inspired any such stunningly consistent, coherent intellectual structure  as science and mathematics.” 

We can finally proclaim that if ideas are to change the world  – and change us – they need to be beautiful.

Of course, we do not need to consciously – or self-consciously – pursue beauty. The impulse to experience a feeling  of rightness in whatever we create, whether tangible or intellectual, artistic, scientific or technological is likely to be enough to guide us. But my argument here is that if  our ideas are to have any effect in the world, then the outputs of our efforts must indeed be beautiful.

Beauty renders the world manageable and coherent. Like Ariadne’s thread, in a world that teems with uncertainty, beauty provides us with a way through complexity. It is not a means of denying or eradicating it. Beauty is not something that is at war with the world, but it does provide us with a means of ordering it, and rendering it manageable and understandable.  And we find that organizing of complexity – or that revealing of simplicity in complexity – beguiling, and enormously persuasive. It seduces, persuades, and invites us in. Beauty persuades us.

Ideas then must work to expand our powers of perception, understanding and experience. In their marrying of simplicity with power, beautiful ideas are the effective, useful ones.  

Finally, the quest for beauty – whatever our field of enquiry or domain of expertise – leads us towards truth and enlightenment. Whether that enlightenment and truth is about the workings of the universe, or about something smaller and more intimate (ourselves) it reveals and leads us to truth. And that is why it is such a powerful agent of progress, and why our ideas must embrace it.

 

Sources

Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography

Robert Adams, ‘Photography, Life and Beauty’, interview, www.pbs.org/art21/artists/adams/clip2.html

W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves 

Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots

Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination 

Antonella Cupilleri, The Nuts and Bolts of Proofs

Jean Delumeau, History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden In Myth And Tradition 

Sian Ede, ‘Armed and dangerously provocative… ‘ 5 August 2005, http://timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=197750&sectioncode=26 

T.S Eliot, ‘East Coker’, from The Four Quartet

Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty

David Gelernter, Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art 

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory 

George Johnson, Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th Century

Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative

G.C. Rota, The Phenomenology of Mathematical Beauty. Synthese 111 

Jonathan Schell, Abolition 

Bertrand Russell, Autobiography

Patrik Schumacher, ‘Engineering Elegance’, in H. Kara (ed.) Design Engineering, 2008 

Roger Scruton, Beauty

Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The making of the Modern Identity

Wolpert, L., and Richards, A. 1997,  Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists

 

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5 comments

  1. Geert-Jan Baltus

    Beautiful piece of writing. Thanks a lot. Again. I love reading your posts/essays. I don’t mind the long copy; always thought provoking about the good stuff! So please keep it up.

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