Does science have a “beauty” problem? David Orrell, a mathematician and consultant, argues that it does–or, at least, that some of its practitioners are in thrall to ideals involving “elegance,” “symmetry,” and “unity” that are beckoning them down false paths.
From Euclid and Pythagoras down to 20th-century physicists, many who explore the underlying laws of the natural world have seen truth and beauty as inextricably intertwined. “Beauty is a successful criterion for selecting the right theory,” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann said in a much-quoted TED talk, in 2007. In their popular-philosophizing mode, physicists like to quote the poets Keats (“beauty is truth, truth beauty”) or Blake on the subject of nature’s “fearful symmetry.”