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Is the LHC an expensive art installation?

Sergio Cittolin, LHC Drawings in the Style of DaVinci (source)
Sergio Cittolin, LHC Drawings in the Style of DaVinci (source)

There are reams of writing, hours of talks, and TV programs by scientists on the manifestation of beauty in physics and mathematics. Obviously, beauty is a great angle for science communication, but their appreciation for beauty has a pragmatic purpose. From Albert Einstein to Edward Frenkel; Werner Heisenberg to Frank Wilczek; and Hermann Weyl to Brian Greene there is something approaching an argument for beauty in accomplished scientists’ writings and commentaries. One example, Robert R. Wilson, the founding director of Fermilab, was a passionate promoter of art’s valuable influence on science. He intended from the outset for the the new physics laboratory to be augmented and enriched with a robust aesthetic culture. Fortunately, this argument for beautiful science tends to lean in the direction of “beauty is truth” rather than “beauty is God”. Truth here is defined as Heidegger’s preferred Greek term for truth, aletheia, which translates awkwardly into English as something like “unconcealment”. Is the argument from beauty = truth variant also a fallacy?

It is important to clarify that mathematicians and physicians are not talking about all types of beauty. Everyone can appreciate the chaotic beauty found in scenic landscape, space, and sky. There is the embellished or ornamental beauty seen in the form of biological and behavioral displays of differentiation and fitness. There is ineffable, emotional beauty so sublime that it makes you weep tears of wonder and joy. Finally, there is the classical beauty of efficiency, harmony, and spare, streamlined elegance. That last one is the type of beauty the mathematicians and physicists like so much.

Brancusi's Golden Bird 1920
Brancusi’s Golden Bird 1920 (source)

And they really do rhapsodize on the beauty of scientific discoveries like E = mc 2, a2 + b2 = c2 e + 1 = 0, and the double helix structure of DNA to name a few.  Rightly so. If you have enough education to appreciate them the elegance inherent in these nuggets of truth is sublime. Science has a long track record filled with influential, aesthetically-pleasing successes so maybe it’s natural and perhaps prudent to keep a concise beauty in mind while seeking out more rewarding and reliable universal patterns.

Surprisingly, this pursuit of ideal beauty in science is a bit of a throwback from the point of view of contemporary artists. Ideal beauty is no longer the goal of every artist. Western artists have expanded our palette since the late 1800s, but beauty still remains in our toolbox. It will always remain the standard of fine design, however. Unified, streamlined, efficient elegance is the goal of good design, architecture, and great composition. Many works of art whether or not they are about other types of beauty, ugliness, concepts, or emotional content are composed to be a harmonious, balanced whole. I don’t think that scientists are projecting this aesthetic onto the universe. I think they are intuitively building upon the beautiful patterns that have already been discovered.

The scientific truth as beauty school of thought has its detractors. One such critic is economist, David Orrell author of Truth or Beauty, Science and the Quest for Order. In it, he claims that the drive for beautiful discoveries is a misleading prejudice. He has a point. In these days of developing quantum mechanics and the study of complexity theory and the chaos of emergent phenomena you are more likely to play peek-a-boo with a Cheshire Cat than unveil a Venus de Milo.

However, Orrell loses credibility when he calls the LHC and other particle accelerators “highly expensive art installations.” That’s just ridiculous. He says particle physics is a hotbed of misguided scientific reductionism. For the artists reading this, this assertion is a lot like an art theorist saying the Bauhaus, modernism, or minimalism are a waste of time and have no merit. He is alleging that the pursuit of simple and elegant solutions to the gaps and problems currently present in the standard model is an artsy indulgence. Seriously? It is obvious that CERN is not in the business of exploring and confirming aesthetics. They are in the business of ruling out or confirming hypotheses about the forces and building blocks of the universe and the conditions that make and break them. This work is progressing apace and is a vital, rational pursuit not an artistic one. Because no matter how much scientists write and talk about aesthetics and beauty in science it is apparent to almost anyone that it is just one of the tools in their toolbox.

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  1. I don’t think you actually read my book Truth or Beauty (at least past the first few pages) because as discussed in the book I am not an economist, I am an applied mathematician who used to design particle accelerators and now works primarily in mathematical biology (some of my books discuss economics from the viewpoint of a non-economist). Also you quote me out of context, what I said was “One does not normally think of science as being an aesthetic pursuit, nor of particle accelerator projects like the LHC as highly expensive art installations,” which is not quite the same as arguing that the LHC really is an art installation (there are obvious differences, which the book goes into). What the book does do is draw parallels between art and science, and discusses the importance of aesthetics in science. I also argue that theories such as string theory have been selected in large part, not because they successfully help to explain observations (they don’t) but because they are considered beautiful. These are not particularly outlandish claims – indeed I quote a number of people working in the area who say similar things.

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