A Beautiful Question

a book review by Karen A. Bellenir

The question of beauty stirs opinions about aesthetic appeal.  It brings to mind the work of artists and conjures images of natural splendor. But science and math? Can equations and the mind-boggling complexity of Einstein's theory of relativity or quantum chromodynamics be beautiful too?

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, set out to explore that possibility in his latest book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. He opens the discussion with the declaration, "This book is a long meditation on a single question: Does the world embody beautiful ideas?" He goes on to explain that ideas are nonphysical; they are thoughts. Physical bodies have substance; they are material.  To get an idea into a tangible body requires that it be embodied. "Embodying ideas is what artists do," Wilczek says, and he asks "Is the world a work of art?"

In considering the evidence, Wilczek takes readers on a tour of the development of mathematics and the sciences. He begins with Pythagorus, who described the relationship among the sides of right triangles and worked out the connections between numbers and musical harmony. He talks about Plato's musings on the correspondences between ideals and forms. He continues with a discussion about how artists learned to work with perspective and how scientists like Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell were inspired by the study of light and color.

Harmony, color, and symmetry play important roles in defining the type of beauty Wilczek seeks. After establishing this foundation, he moves forward into explaining the development of more recent ideas in physics. He talks about special and general relativity and the bizarre world of quantum theory. The book's narrative continues into current-day discoveries regarding elementary particles and forces and Wilczek's expectations regarding future breakthroughs.

The book's early chapters are fairly simple to read, and Wilczek is a master at creating analogies to help nonscientists understand complicated concepts. In addition, many illustrations are incorporated in the text, and two sets of full-color images help render complex ideas into visually accessible forms.

As the topics turn toward cutting-edge science in the realm of non-intuitive dimensions, understanding the text requires more effort. To help struggling readers (that is, readers like me), the book concludes with an extensive collection of supplemental material. Timelines help put discoveries in perspective. A section titled "Terms of Art" is more than a mere glossary. It discusses terminology in the context of the concepts that are most important to the text. Notes provide additional explanatory material, and recommendations for additional reading offer direction for people who want to learn more.

To sum it up, A Beautiful Question is a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between the ideal and the real. Wilczek offers his readers an opportunity to glimpse the magnificence embodied in the largest structures in the universe and in the smallest elementary particles that make it up.

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design is on sale at 20% off in the Pier Press® Bookstore during the month of January 2016.