Science in Society Archive

Why Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, invited lecture Making Visible the Invisible Conference, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK, 10-11 March 2011

A fully referenced and illustrated version of this lecture and lecture with power point presentation are available for download from our online store

Is beauty truth in science?

Scientists, especially the greatest scientists are motivated by the beauty of the natural order of things. So intensely felt is the love for the beauty of a scientific theory that some scientists are unconcerned as to whether the theory happens to be true. Fortunately, really beautiful theories tend to be true, in the sense that their predictions can be tested and confirmed empirically. That’s what Indian-born American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), recipient of the 1983 Nobel Prize for his work on the evolution of stars, argued in his book Truth and Beauty, Aesthetics and Motivation in Science published 1987 [1].

It is important to distinguish between mathematics and science here, even though they are closely linked. Mathematics is always true in the sense that the deductions follow from the axioms, and the theorems have been proven (although my mathematician husband Peter Saunders tells me that some proofs are controversial and not universally accepted as such). The big difference is that unlike science, it need not apply to nature. It could indeed be misapplied, resulting in scientific theories that are neither true nor beautiful.

In his book, Why Beauty is Truth, A History of Symmetry published in 2007 [2], Ian Stewart at Warwick University extols the beauty of mathematical symmetry. But does it give us beautiful science [3]?  Mathematical symmetry has spawned a series of string theories and superstring theories, 10500 of them, to be precise, to explain ultimate physical reality. Among its recent triumphs is a complex mathematical structure of 248 dimensions [4, 5]; though only a much simplified version in 2 dimensions can be depicted for the benefit of non-mathematicians.  

Many scientists are unimpressed, some declaring string theory outright ugly [6] because it is strongly reminiscent of the epicycles that described the paths of the planets around the earth in the earth-centred theory of the solar system before it was replaced by the much simpler, more elegant, and hence genuinely beautiful heliocentric theory. Beauty is pivotal to the scientist’s judgment as to whether a theory is true.

More than that, the quest for beauty is central to the life of the scientist. Henri Poincare (1854-1912), French mathematician-physicist and the Last Universalist excelling in all fields of mathematics in his time, once wrote [1]: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living [emphasis added].”

I add emphasis to “life would not be worth living” because that’s exactly how I feel. The greatest gift a human being can have – and everyone has it - is the capacity to be inspired by beauty; it is the fount, if not the raison d’etre of all creation. To be inspiring, one must have the capacity to be inspired.

Poincare referred to ultimate beauty as [1] “the harmonious order of its parts [to the whole]; and went on to say that the scientist delights in both the “vastness” and the “prodigious smallness” of things - domains that transcend everyday experience – thereby inviting us to reach for the deeper mysteries of nature.

Transcendence of the mundane is a hallmark of beauty, as it is of science and art. That’s why one should be wary of educationalists who insist on reducing science and mathematics to prosaic everyday experience. For the same reason, one should hold onto that dumb inspiration, the sublime beauty that leaves you lost for words.  You will find yourself returning to it again and again, until perhaps a great scientific theory, or work of art drops like a ripe fruit from the tree of creativity that grows out of the fertile ground of the imagination.

I wholeheartedly agree with JWN Sullivan (1886-1937), London-born journalist and biographer of Newton and Beethoven among others, who wrote [1]: “The measure of success of a scientific theory is, in fact, a measure of its aesthetic value…The measure in which science falls short of art is the measure in which it is incomplete as science.” Implicit in what Sullivan said is that art is a measure of beauty.

In response, artist and art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) observed that there is no reason why a beautiful scientific theory has to “agree with facts”. Like Poincare, who posited “pleasure” in the beauty of nature as the motivation for science, Fry laid great store by “emotional pleasure” in the pursuit of art. But is it the same “pleasure” in both cases? Fry pointed out that in art, the emotional pleasure comes from “the recognition of relations” that is “immediate and sensational”, and “curiously akin to those cases of mathematical geniuses who have immediate intuition of relations which it is beyond their powers to prove.” In that sense, art is more akin to mathematics than science.

A famous case was the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), who left a large number of notebooks that recorded several hundred formulae and identities; many were proven decades after his death by methods that Ramanujan could not have known.

British mathematician GN Watson (1886-1965) spent several years proving Ramanujan’s identities, and vividly described how coming across those identities gave him “a thrill”  indistinguishable from that which he felt on seeing Michelangelo’s sculptures “Day”, “Night”, “Evening”, and “Dawn” over the Medici tombs in Florence, Italy [1].

Ramanujan inspired the recent multi-award winning play A Disappearing Number by Théâtre de Complicité and British playwright Simon McBurney [7]; and it is the most beautiful play I have seen in the past ten years.

But it is all the more thrilling, I think, when nature appears to conform to an elegant mathematical theory. German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg recalled his extreme elation on discovering the laws of quantum mechanics [1]: “I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.” In his conversation with Albert Einstein afterwards, he recorded: “If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great simplicity and beauty – by forms I am referring to coherent systems of hypotheses, axioms, etc. – to forms that no one has previously encountered, we cannot help thinking that they are “true”, that they reveal a genuine feature of nature.”

Is beauty and truth relevant to art?

Heisenberg was anticipated by English romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) in the enigmatic last lines of his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, which have been debated by generations of poets and critics since [8]:

Beauty is truth,
truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know.

T.S. Eliot said the lines were [4] “meaningless” and “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.” Famously aggressive American critic John Simon opened a movie review with “one of the greatest problems of art - perhaps the greatest - is that truth is not beauty, beauty not truth. Nor is it all we need to know.”

Are artists motivated by the quest for beauty and truth? What would “truth” mean in art?

Or is the quest for beauty and truth in both science and art no longer relevant in the present day, having been overtaken by the profit imperative. One commentator remarks [9]: “A century ago, beauty was almost unanimously considered the supreme purpose of art and even synonymous with artistic excellence. Yet today beauty has come to be viewed as an aesthetic crime. Artists are now chastised by critics if their works seem to aim at beauty.”

But the pendulum is swinging back. Since the early 1990s there has been a rising chorus to bring beauty back to art [10-13], if not to science.  Arthur Danto, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic, for example, said that the modernists were right to exclude beauty from art, but also that beauty is essential to human life, and need not always be excluded from art [9].  

If beauty (and truth) is essential for human life, then beauty and truth are central to art and science, and recovering them is the most urgent task facing humanity as corporate manipulation of truth and beauty threatens the survival of people and planet. That’s the project we have taken on at the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS).

Recovering beauty in its organic form

What does it mean to recover beauty and truth in science and art? Is there an agreed, universal concept of beauty? I cannot think of a universal concept of beauty, although I believe the sense of beauty is universal.

Of course, there is no end of apologists who tell us that the concept of beauty changes through the ages, and what was thought ugly when first perceived, such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal, is now revered as high art. And there are those who claim that beauty is culture-bound, and what is beautiful in one culture is abomination in another.

Yet, beneath it all, we know that beauty is timeless and universal. Witness that collective sharp intake of breath when successive prehistoric cave paintings were unveiled to the world, the most recent spectacle in the Chauvet cave of Ardeche, France, dating from 30 000 BC [14]. Or marvel at the astonishing creative transgressions of cultural/ethnic/genre boundaries in contemporary music and art, albeit mostly away from the mainstream.

Do discover the truly avant garde of science and art at the history-making event Quantum Jazz Biology, Medicine, and Art [15] taking place 26-27 March 2011. It is marked by three important publications: Celebrating I-SIS, Quantum Jazz Biology *Medicine*Art [16], a 100-page commemorative volume featuring the works of scientists, artists and others appearing at the event; Quantum Jazz Art [17], a DVD of virtual art exhibits accompanied by specially selected original contemporary music; and Celebrating I-SIS Event [18], a DVD of the actual art exhibitions, musical performances, lectures, interviews, and other activities at the event (all available from I-SIS online bookstore).

The year 2011 happens to be the 12th anniversary of I-SIS, co-founded by me and Peter Saunders, with a mission to reclaim science for the public good through providing accessible and critical scientific information to the public, insisting on sustainability and accountability in science, and especially, promoting holistic organic science in place of the mechanistic. Holistic science is ultimately a way of knowing and understanding that engages all our faculties, both rational and aesthetic, and hence recognizes no separation between science and art. So we are really recovering the values of the pre-modernist romantic era, with one important difference. 

We need to transcend traditional concepts of harmony and elegance that are static and mechanical, hence quite inadequate to encompass the protean, shimmering splendor of nature’s organic beauty.

In science, the static harmony of the ‘golden mean’ has blossomed into the mathematics of chaos and strange attractors, and fractal geometry, much closer to how nature expresses herself; though not exactly, and that is important in real science, as opposed to mathematics.

Some ‘strange attractors’ containing the possible trajectories of nonlinear dynamical systems that exhibit deterministic chaos

Mathematics and science have caught up to the capricious volatility of natural processes and the endless diversity of natural forms. Fractal mathematics reveals that the variability of the healthy heartbeat is a sign that the heart is in coherent intercommunication with the rest of the body, and hence reflects the entire range of the body’s biological rhythms [19, 20] (The Heartbeat of Health, Happiness Is A Heartbeat Away, SiS 35), with a characteristic self-similar mathematical structure over a range of time scales. The dynamic structure is absent from the unhealthy and superficially much more regular heartbeat.

Even more fundamentally, fractal processes and structures are ubiquitous in organisms, and this accounts for the allometric scaling of physiological processes with body size that has long puzzled biologists. This new discovery deserves to be called perhaps Biology’s Theory of Everything? [21] (SiS 21).

Nevertheless, nature does not conform to ideal mathematics, which succeeds only in approximating it [22]. The contingent, unpredictable, unrepeatable freedom of the moment is what makes life and art. In The Biology of Free Will [23] (I-SIS scientific publication), I showed how, in freeing itself from mechanical determinism and mechanistic control, the organism becomes a sentient, coherent being that is free, from moment to moment, to explore and create its possible futures . A work of art is unique for the occasion, as are all organic forms and organisms, as opposed to mechanically manufactured objects.

So perhaps Andy Warhol was saying something critical and profound with his piles of identical Brillo boxes and Campbell tinned soups.

Mechanical uniformity has given way to dynamic coherence (more later).

Beauty is truth in art

Beauty in science and art comes in endlessly diverse organic forms, surprising and unpredictable, and always sublime in arousing that rapturous “thrill” that I can only describe as an all-encompassing love, not just directed at the particular object of beauty, but permeating the universe at large. And I venture to suggest: the same “truth” or authenticity underlies beauty in art as in science, in that it resonates with some universal, timeless aspects of nature to which we are connected, and in which we are utterly immersed [24] (In Search of the Sublime, SiS 39). 

Let me do a little experiment that may illustrate what I am saying about beauty and authenticity. Here are two electron micrographs of the same kind of cells prepared using two difference procedures. Which is the more beautiful, the one on the left, or on the right?

Which is the more beautiful?

You have all chosen the one on the left (30 out of 30)!

Now, which is the more true to life, the one on the left, or on the right?

The one on the right is the state-of-the-art conventional electron microscopy, involving fixation and dehydration before staining. The one on the left however, was done without dehydration. Instead, it was freeze-dried, then sectioned, and the water sublimated away through a very long, laborious process, which the scientist Ludwig Edelman believes, is crucial in capturing what the cell is really like in life, when it is hydrated with 70 to 80 percent by weight of water [25, 26] (What's the Cell Really Like?  SiS 24).  There are more structures preserved in the non-dehydrated cell processed by Edelman, so it is reasonable to conclude that it represents more closely what the cell is like in life. Beauty and truth coincide in the electron micrograph, which is as much a work of art as a work of science.

From other research including my own that I shall presently describe, we now know that the water in the cell and extracellular matrix is in a very special, liquid crystalline state that form dynamically coherent units with the macromolecules embedded within it, and without which, the enzyme proteins, the DNA, RNA, would not work at all.

Water has very special properties, even outside the body. It has fascinated and intrigued generations of scientists, including me. Here are a couple of pictures taken by an artist that are also scientific documents. Michel Kappeli is an extraordinary experimental artist who has enabled the river water in a remote Swiss village to speak to him directly, unmediated by complicated technical aids [27] (Water - Uncharted Spaces – the Body of the Transitory, SiS 48). These beautiful large scale structural symphonies leave you in no doubt that liquid water is coherent at ambient conditions. Michel is speaking and exhibiting his work at our event.

Large scale structural symphonies in water

Quantum jazz biology and art

It is19 years since I peered down the microscope and saw the little fruit fly larva hatch from its egg, dancing in all the colours of the rainbow, which no one else had seen before. These are real interference colours that some artists would die for.

Later, the true significance of this vision dawned on me: it would not have been possible unless all the molecules in the cells and tissues within the body of the little larva are aligned as liquid crystals and moving coherently together; all including the water molecules that form dynamically coherent units with the macromolecules embedded in it, enabling them to function as quantum molecular machines with efficiencies close to 100 percent. That water I call “liquid crystalline water”; without which the molecular machines cannot work and life would be impossible.

The fruit fly larva is not unique, all living cells and organisms display themselves like that under the polarized light microscope geologists use to look at rock crystals. My colleague Michael Lawrence and I had inadvertently discovered a new setting for the microscope that’s particularly good for looking at biological liquid crystals.

All organisms are liquid crystalline

These beautiful images of live organisms are among the key evidence that convinced me organisms are coherent to a high degree, from the macroscopic level down to the molecular and below.

The other important reason we can see such images at all – making the previously invisible visible - is that we have used a non-destructive technique to allow the organisms to show us what they are really like, and we were richly rewarded. Again, these are beautiful and authentic works of science and art.

In the book named after the fruit fly larva [28] The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, first published in 1993 and now in its 3rd enlarged 2008 edition, I presented theoretical arguments and empirical evidence to support the idea that the organism is quantum coherent, and depends on individual molecular energy machines embedded in the ‘liquid crystalline water’ matrix working seamlessly together to transform material and energy without loss.

An organism going around its business of living is doing quantum jazz inside: an incredible dynamic light and sound dance-show involving astronomical numbers of the most diverse players, coordinated from sub-atomic dimensions to the macroscopic performing over a frequency range of 73 octaves, each improvising spontaneously and freely yet keeping perfectly in step and in tune with the whole.

When I first proposed that the organism is quantum coherent in the early 1990s, only a handful of exceptional scientists thought quantum theory had anything to do with biology at all. The situation has greatly changed since then. Google ran a workshop on “quantum biology” in October 2010 [29], where various scientists spoke about quantum coherence at the micron scale for photosynthesis, and about the “collapse” of the quantum wave function as the basis of consciousness and a kind of quantum computing in our brain. Obviously, they have yet to catch up with the evidence suggesting (to me at least) that the organism is completely quantum coherent.

Finally, I show you a few of my own paintings in quest of quantum jazz [15-18]; and you shall have to decide whether they are beautiful, or beautiful enough to be true.

For much better works than mine, do come to quantum jazz with us and make history at our very special event [15].

A fully referenced and illustrated version of this lecture and lecture with power point presentation are available for download from our online store

Article first published 14/03/11


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