The Inevitability In Beauty

Theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed and novelist Ian McEwan recently discussed the relationship between art and science, often agreeing that what might unite them is beauty. Here’s how Arkani-Hamed thinks about the aesthetics of his work:

We often talk of the idea of beauty in theories. And I think if this is interpreted loosely you won’t get really a sense of what we mean. We have to be a little more specific. Ideas that we find beautiful are not a capricious aesthetic judgment. It’s not fashion, it’s not sociology. It’s not something that you might find beautiful today but won’t find beautiful 10 years from now. The things that we find beautiful today we suspect would be beautiful for all eternity. And the reason is, what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them. There are very few principles and there’s no possible other way they could work once you understand them deeply enough. So that’s what we mean when we say ideas are beautiful.

A year ago I ran into this great lecture on YouTube by Leonard Bernstein about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. And Bernstein used precisely this language – not approximately this language – exactly this language of inevitability, perfect accordance to its internal logical structure and how difficult and tortuous it was for Beethoven to figure out. He used precisely the same language we use in mathematics and theoretical physics to describe our sense of aesthetics and beauty.

And here’s how McEwan describes his writing’s debt to science:

I would like to feel that we could think about science as just one more aspect of organised human curiosity rather than as a special compartment. And it has, as has been very clear from this discussion, a powerful aesthetic. I think we need to generalise it. We need to absorb it into our sense that we can love the music of Beethoven without being composers and we could love science as a celebration of human ingenuity without being scientists.

Science has had a huge effect on my own sense of the world. It certainly has helped me along the way to a general global scepticism about religion. The world of faith is inimical to the world of science and in that sense science has helped me want to write books every now and then that celebrate a full-blooded rationalism. It’s one of our delightful aspects and it informs what we try to do with our laws and social policy.

We don’t succeed a lot of the time. And we despair of human relationships at the most private level when they’re irregular or contradictory. We demand even of our lovers a degree of coherence and behind that lies a notion of consistency and rationality. Enduring Love was actually a novel wishing to oppose the romantic notion that abstraction and logic and rationality and science in particular was a cold-hearted thing, a myth I think which began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We need to reclaim our own sense of the full-bloodedness, the warmth of what’s rational.

You can watch the whole interaction between McEwan and Arkani-Hamed here.