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« The Problem of Beauty | Main | “Gay Genes” and Religious Homophobia »

The Problem of Beauty, Continued

After writing “The Problem of Beauty” yesterday and firing it off into cyberspace, I pulled on my sweatshirt and headed out with Merlin, our big curly-coated retriever. I ran down the driveway, Merlin prancing before me, proudly bearing a fungus-covered log in his jaws. I ran through the field beside our property, dodging bushes studded with thorns and blood-drop berries. Trailing my bounding black dog I hopped a wall of lichen-skinned stones and ran into the woods, past trees festooned with scarlet and yellow and orange leaves, in contrast to the somber deep green of a few scattered hemlocks, and beyond the trees I could see slivers of blue sky, that only-in-autumn theory-transcending blue, and a breeze blew and the leaves shimmied in unison, like ecstatic parishioners…

What I’m trying to say here is that after writing about the problem of beauty, I stepped outside and literally ran into it. Moments like these make me doubt my own doubt.


nigel cook

You have to separate art from science. Scenes "look" nice because they trigger off good memories or thoughts.

There is no universal definition of beauty so it is not a scientific concept.

If the world always looked the way it did in autumn or winter, people would soon get tired of it.

Likewise, I spent a couple of years as a student spending my spare time serving giant quarter litre cornish dairy ice creams at Thorpe Park in England. The ice cream was delicious and the cones were the specially baked biscuit-like ones, equally delicious. Before shutting up on the last day I was working there, we had an ice cream eating binge, getting through litres and dozens of cones. The effects were not very good that night, and I don't have reckless enthusiasm for ice cream anymore!

nigel cook

I've just found the relevant article on beauty and pseudo-science by my fellow Electronics World magazine author, Leslie Green.

L. Green, "Engineering versus pseudo-science", E.W. vol. 110, number 1820, August 2004, pp52-3:

"... controversy is easily defused by a good experiment. When such unpleasantness is encountered, both warring factions should seek a resolution in terms of definitive experiments, rather than continued personal mudslinging. This is the difference beween scientific subjects, such as engineering, and non-scientific subjects such as art. Nobody will ever be able to devise an uglyometer to quantify the artistic merits of a painting, for example."

Bram Boroson

Maybe nature seems so abundant and beautiful in contrast to the poverty and simplistic character of the concepts we are able to communicate explicitly.

Maybe it was more efficient to evolve the ability to remember, "oh yeah, a sunset has red and orange and purple colors" than to be able to reproduce in one's imagination all the complexity of the sight. So that when we see it in actuality, we're pretty amazed.

Andrei Kirilyuk

The colourful description in this second part of the "Problem of Beauty" is a very explicit, though purely "empirical", confirmation of the conclusion, elaborated in my comment to the first part ( ), that beauty is none other than UNREDUCED DYNAMIC COMPLEXITY of the world (I could even include in my universal theory John Horgan himself running with his dog and simultaneously transgressing the boundaries of his knowledge!). My "original", nontrivial point is that beauty thus defined (and other "humanitarian" concepts) CAN be described (I show how exactly) in terms of rigorous, mathematically based knowledge and without any simplification.


Re: The meaning of "Beauty"

I wonder whether "beauty" is as subjective a quality as everyone seems to think it is. Consider the flippant remark that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder,' for example. This evaluation of beauty seems to me to be fairly cynical and dismissive.

I would say that in the scientific community, when something is false, disproved or unsupported by experimentation, it cannot be considered beautiful, no matter how clever or attractive it might otherwise be. Therefore, in the scientific world, to be beautiful something has first of all to be true.

Perhaps that is all we need say. Truth is beauty--an objective fact, and not a subjective evaluation.

nigel cook


The scientific community is more obsessed with policing itself for political correctness. Any community has policies, and thus a political side to it. It does try to blur the boundaries between art and objectivity in the case of string theory: consider Wolfgang Pauli's famous beautiful painting of the empty box.

Werner Heisenberg's crackpotism in the late 1950s led Wolfgang Pauli to discredit it using an anti-Heisenberg campaign. It is a piece of paper with an empty box on it and reads: ‘Comment on Heisenberg’s Radio advertisement. This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing. W. Pauli.’

Dr Woit explains: ‘With such a dramatic lack of experimental support, string theorists often attempt to make an aesthetic argument, professing that the theory is strikingly ‘elegant’ or ‘beautiful.’ Because there is no well-defined theory to judge, it’s hard to know what to make of these assertions, and one is reminded of another quotation from Pauli. Annoyed by Werner Heisenberg’s claims that, though lacking in some specifics, he had a wonderful unified theory (he didn't), Pauli sent letters to some of his physicist friends each containing a blank rectangle and the text, ‘This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing.’ Because no one knows what ‘M-theory’ is, its beauty is that of Pauli's painting. Even if a consistent M-theory can be found, it may very well turn out to be something of great complexity and ugliness.' - Dr Peter Woit, ‘Is string theory even wrong?’, American Scientist, March-April 2002,

Notice that string theorists try to claim Pauli made the 'uncheckable prediction' of the neutrino, but that is not correct. Pauli predicted its properties and always knew it could potentially be checked, see: for the deception and then see for the truth:

Wolfgang Pauli’s letter of Dec 4, 1930 to a meeting of beta radiation specialists in Tubingen:

‘Dear Radioactive Ladies and Gentlemen, I have hit upon a desperate remedy regarding ... the continous beta-spectrum ... I admit that my way out may seem rather improbable a priori ... Nevertheless, if you don’t play you can’t win ... Therefore, Dear Radioactives, test and judge.’

A scientific theory founded upon facts and making checkable predictions which are confirmed is a "theory". Abject speculation that can't be tested and contradicts observed quantum effects is not a theory and anyone spending their life on it and wasting their own, and therefore also their followers', time is a crackpot.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Beautiful Truth or “Elegant” Lie?

The relation between (scientific) truth and beauty mentioned in this discussion is not without interest. There is a well-known idea attributed to Dirac that every genuine scientific truth should possess some intrinsic, “intellectual” beauty, and therefore such beauty of a proposed result can be used as an independent, “aesthetic” criterion of truth in science (in addition to usual “proofs”, etc.). What he wanted to emphasize is that while being generally oriented to all kind of “objective” criteria and methods, one should not forget, even within very “exact” scientific theories, such totally subjective criteria and attitudes, which can possess nevertheless a “strangely” big practical efficiency. I think this is rather close to the aspects of the problem of beauty discussed here.

More specifically, however, the problem with the PARTICULAR kind of knowledge of usual, official science of today is that it can propose only very simplified, intrinsically incomplete versions (“models”) of reality and therefore cannot really be “true” (which does NOT prevent such incomplete knowledge from certain limited, and now increasingly limited, usefulness). It means that NONE of the announced and often useful “truths” of that kind of science can really be beautiful! One can even provide a “basic” characterisation of the particular kind of knowledge of official science as being (partially) useful, but not beautiful (aesthetically satisfactory), which can explain various “contradictory” feelings about that knowledge. By contrast, a really desirable, intrinsically complete kind of knowledge should be BOTH useful AND beautiful (alias “consistent”). Indeed, perceived “beauty” gives rise to a feeling of “harmony” (harmony is a perceived beauty), and only causally complete (but unlimited in its further development!) kind of knowledge can be considered harmonious, while usual science is just notorious for its irreducible ruptures, “mysteries”, manipulations, and finally “moral degradation”, explicitly bad practices, which is something opposed to harmony.

I can further specify these conclusions within my statement (see my previous comments here) that beauty can be consistently and rigorously explained as unreduced dynamic complexity (itself being rigorously and universally defined) of an observed structure alone (“objective beauty”) or of the combined system of the observed structure, “source of beauty” (a “woman”, art work, etc.) and observing system, “connoisseur of beauty” (a “man”, expert, etc.). I also show that all real systems (starting from a single, isolated electron) possess a positive, and actually large, dynamic complexity, while all constructions of official science correspond to exactly zero value of the unreduced dynamic complexity (not to be confused with various formal and provably inconsistent imitations of “complexity” in scholar science). The above conclusion acquires then a rigorously confirmed status: any result of official, “unitary” (= dynamically single-valued) science doctrine CANNOT be beautiful (or has the smallest possible, zero value of “objective” beauty).

But what about some allegedly “elegant” constructions of unitary science, such as string theory? [Their authors wanted to say something like “well, even if it is all wrong physically, it is so “elegant” that it merits to be developed in any case”.] The answer is related to inevitably subjective perception by the “beholder's” brain: it is the complexity of the latter which is actually perceived as a feeling of “elegance”, etc. But even if such subjective feelings have the right to exist (contrary to their unfair and fraudulent domination in public financial support of fundamental physics!), the whole picture of unitary science constructions cannot be truly beautiful because of all its “contradictions”. At best, it may look as an otherwise beautiful face but strongly damaged by a big, ugly scar. I think many would agree that such kind of “beauty” is in a sense worse than its simple low level (e.g. a “plain” face but without any damage). That's why they try various kinds of “plastic surgery” to “hide” those inherent scars of unitary science. But maybe it would be better to replace it by a “natural beauty” of intrinsically complete, realistic knowledge, once and for all? It is evident that such knowledge would just directly reflect the beauty of Nature we observe and admire so much.


Mr. Cook:

It seems to me that there is a difference between following a theory and engaging in an inquiry. To me, "theory" always implies an element of speculation, of predicting the next step. "Inquiry," on the other hand, implies questioning from a known point to the next point. A person inquiring questions; he doesn't need predictions. As a matter of fact, true scientific investigation has to be a process of inquiry, since to "predict" is to risk influencing the outcome.

So can we ask, is "theory" really necessary in science?


Mr. Kirilyuk:

Yes, this subject is of interest, and it should be. I think it's important to ask, what is "beauty," and how do we know what is beautiful, whether in the scientific field or anywhere else in our lives. Maybe if we took more time with this question there wouldn't be so much ugliness in the world.

nigel cook


Yes, the word "theory" can have different meanings. The main in the street will use it as a form of abuse, as in "that's only a theory".

However, take the example I gave above of Pauli's prediction of the neutrino.

That was theoretical, but it really contained no speculation at all:

(The only 'alternative' to predicting the neutrino was to dismiss the principle of conservation of mass-energy, which Bohr wanted to do. We all know what a lie Bohr created by falsely claiming that the only conceivable interpretation of physics is the Copenhagen Interpretation.)

What Popper missed out was the fact that you can make factual predictions in science using other facts.

Archimedes proved the law of buoyancy using facts, not speculations. That was not falsifiable, really:

Actually, proofs that are not falsifiable are not necessarily wrong or not even wrong, particularly if they make checkable predictions. If the theory is a solid as the prediction 1 + 1 = 2, it isn't falsifiable, but you may still like to verify the prediction by counting the beads.

Popper's great mistake is insisting that science must be built on such shaky foundations that it must have a chance of being wrong. Pauli's prediction of the neutrino was built on hard facts, not speculation.

Suppose you have a speculative theory which predicts E=mc^2 and the Lorentz contraction formulae which are validated.

If there is more than one way of getting those formulae, then the first guy who does it may not have stumbled on the best method, or the best principles.

You can be able to do the same things using other principles, which leads to fewer inconsistencies in gravity and QFT!

Sam Taylor

After scotch or two, a little red wine with my eggplant parmagina, watching the delightful movie "Babette's Feast" on a DVD my neice sent me for my birthday and a post prandial brandy, it is hard to do much but smile at the macho materialists who take this stuff seriously.

Enjoy your run John, just as my wife and I enjoyed wondering why the sudden infestation of great blue herons, cormorants, kingfishers, etc. exists to our delight in the small pond behind our house.




On a lighter note: You say in your last post that ". . .the prediction of 1+1=2 isn't falsifiable, but you may still like to verify the prediction by counting the beads."

My wife was reading Hammet's "The Thin Man" the other day. She started chuckling so I asked her what was so funny. "Well," she said, "Hammet has Nick Charles saying, 'Sometimes 2 and 2 are more than 4. Sometimes they're 22.' I think that's funny."

As you can instantly tell, she's not a physicist.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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