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Further Reading

Department: Headquarters

A Beautiful Science

Intuition & Aesthetics Lead to Empirical Knowledge

by David Anderson

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 35

I recently taught a philosophy of science course to a small class of bright undergraduates. At the start of the course, I asked the students a deceptively simple question: What is science? Many of them answered with a stereotypical portrait. The practice of science, they said, involves dispassionate researchers donning white lab coats and assiduously following the Scientific Method step by step, reading the facts off of nature the way you read nutrition information off a cereal box. These students were confident that science focuses on "objective" matters: transparent observations, data-driven hypotheses, controlled experiments, and repeatable results. They envisioned the whole process as almost "supra-human"; subjective elements have long ago departed, leaving only a checklist-like method of studying the natural world.

Over the course of the semester, I exposed them to the idea that science also depends upon "human" factors—like aesthetic intuition. When coupled with careful attention to empirical data, scientists' sense of beauty has led to stunning breakthroughs. This ought to be no surprise to Christians, who know that, in some measure, creation reflects the sublime nature of the Creator. The significant role of beauty in science is a tribute to God's artistry.

The Beauty of Einstein's Theory

Consider contemporary physics. In notable measure, physicists have used aesthetic intuition to discover and confirm true theories. "[T]ime and again," observes Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, "physicists have been guided by their sense of beauty not only in developing new theories but even in judging the validity of physical theories once they are developed."1 Perhaps the most compelling example is general relativity, Einstein's account of gravity.

The legend of the theory's famous empirical confirmation in 1919 is widely known. As the story goes, physicist Arthur Eddington led a team of British astronomers to observe distant starlight bending around the sun during a solar eclipse. They found, apparently, that the starlight's degree of deflection nicely matched Einstein's prediction. Newspapers around the world carried the news: Relativity confirmed!

History, however, tells a more complicated story. Some scientists at the time doubted the validity of the 1919 experiment itself, in part because of the British astronomers' apparent bias in favor of Einstein's theory. More importantly, other eclipse-based experiments in 1922, 1929, 1936, and 1947 yielded different results—sometimes seriously disagreeing with general relativity's prediction. Strong empirical confirmation of general relativity only consistently appeared in the 1950s, after the use of modern radar and radio astronomy.

Why, then, did so many physicists warm to the theory very early? The story in part involves empirical data, of course. General relativity correctly accounted for Mercury's orbital precession, whereas Newton's theory of gravity was off by a slim margin of 43 seconds every century. And, of course, there were physicists who accepted the 1919 eclipse results.

But aesthetic intuition played a significant role, too. As Weinberg notes, "For forty years general relativity was widely accepted as the correct theory of gravitation despite the slimness of the evidence for it, because the theory was compellingly beautiful."2 Not only did general relativity elegantly unify Newton's theory with special relativity, but the mathematical equations of the theory were also striking and lovely. Einstein wrote to a senior colleague in 1916, "Of the general theory of relativity you will be convinced, once you have studied it. Therefore I am not going to defend it with a single word."3 The beauty of the theory was its own justification.

Beauty in Other Sciences

We should not take Einstein's confidence as an unqualified endorsement of all scientists' aesthetic intuition, of course. But even science writer Philip Ball, who is something of a skeptic on these matters, allows that "anything that inspires scientific thinking is valuable, and if a quest for beauty . . . does that, then bring it on."4

It's no surprise, then, to find "beauty talk" in disciplines besides physics as well. Biologist Ashutosh Jogalekar describes the objects of his research, protein and ligand structures, with child-like fascination: "I could spend days staring at the regularity and precise architecture of these entities."5 And astronomer Guy Consolmagno reports that, upon seeing a "beautiful correlation between grain density and magnetic susceptibility" in meteorites, he felt "a jolt of joy."6 Just as a Rembrandt can command the attention of artists, so God's handiwork can mesmerize the minds of scientists.

More profoundly, sometimes the beauty of a thing directly informs its nature and function. Jogalekar writes, "The structure of a profoundly important biochemical object like the ribosome is certainly pleasing to the eye, but more importantly, it contains very few superfluous elements and is composed of exactly the right number of constituent parts necessary for it to carry out its function."7 The beauty of a ribosome lies not just in its appearance, then, but also in how its lovely structure allows it to perform well—just the right parts for just the right function. As Jogalekar observes, a ribosome "is like a Mozart opera, containing only that which is necessary."8

A Door to Hope & Discovery

Aesthetic intuition also opens the door to discovery. One of my colleagues once worked with another scientist who was struggling to figure out how a type of bacteria expressed a set of genes that built its motility structures. After studying the problem, he suddenly thought of an elegant engineering solution, and exclaimed, "This has to be right. Even if it's wrong, it has to be right!" Sure enough, experimental results later confirmed his hunch. His aesthetic sense, combined with careful attention to empirical data, paved the way.

Einstein had a similar reaction to experimental tests of his work. He was once asked what he would think if the 1919 experiment had disproved his theory. His famous reply: "Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct anyway."9

We may rest assured that the dear Lord was way ahead of Einstein on these matters. Yet the physicist's quip brings to mind the deeper significance of beauty. "Beauty opens a door to hope," notes philanthropist and art collector Roberta Ahmanson. "It tells you there is something more, something beyond."10 The loveliness of the natural world gestures towards something greater—it speaks of elegant design and, by extension, an artistic Designer. 


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