After reading a bit of one book after another, in the last ten days, I am still not able to stick to one book, as my mind is not in one place and I am getting distracted quite easily. Today I took down, from my bookshelf, a book called ‘It Must Be Beautiful : Great Equations of Modern Science’, which is a collection of essays on equations edited by Graham Farmelo. I found the concept behind the book quite interesting – trying to bring out the beauty of powerful equations to the general reader – and the contributors who are leading scientists also seem to be wonderful writers. I finished reading the foreword by Farmelo today evening, and it gave me a lot of pleasure. I didn’t know that scientists could write so well – out of nonfiction writers I remember only John Carey (author of ‘What Good are the Arts?’ and editor of ‘The Faber Book of Science’) and Ed Smith (author of ‘What Sport Tells Us about Life’) writing so well. Graham Farmelo belongs to that select group too, in my heart atleast I thought you might like to read some excerpts from Farmelo’s foreword.
Poems and Onions
During a radio interview Philip Larkin gave in May 1974 to promote his High Windows collection, he pointed out that a good poem is like an onion. On the outside both are pleasingly smooth and intriguing, and they become more and more so, as their successive layers of meaning are revealed. His aim was to write the perfect onion.
The poetry of science is in some sense embodied in its great equations and, as the essays in this book demonstrate, these equations can also be peeled. But their layers represent their attributes and consequences, not their meanings.
Now a twentieth-century icon, E = mc2 is one of the few things about science that every TV quiz participant is expected to know.
In common with all great scientific equations, E = mc2 is in many ways similar to a great poem. Just as a perfect sonnet is spoiled if so much as a word or an item of punctuation is changed, not a single detail of a great equation such as E = mc2 can be altered without rendering it useless. E = 3mc2, for example, has nothing whatever to do with nature.
Great equations also share with the finest poetry an extraordinary power – poetry is the most concise and highly charged form of language, just as the great equations of science are the most succinct form of understanding of the aspect of physical reality they describe. E = mc2 is itself enormously powerful : its few symbols encapsulate knowledge that can be applied to energy conversion, from ones in every cell of every living thing on Earth, to the most distant cosmic explosion. Better yet, it seems to have held good since the beginning of time.
In the same way as close study of a great equation gradually enables scientists to see things that they initially missed, so repeated readings of a great poem invariably stir new emotions and associations. The great equations are just as rich a stimulus as poetry to the prepared imagination. Shakespeare could no more have foreseen the multiple meanings readers have perceived in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ than Einstein could have predicted the myriad consequences of his equations of relativity.
“Beauty, thy name is…”
Of the hundreds of thousands of research scientists who have ever lived, very few have an important scientific equation to their name. Two scientists who were adept at discovering fundamental equations and especially perceptive about the role of mathematics in science were Albert Einstein and the almost comparably brilliant English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Neither was a mathematician per se, but both were remarkable in their ability to write down new equations that were as fecund as the greatest poetry. And both men were captivated by the belief that the fundamental equations of physics must be beautiful.
This may sound strange. The subjective concept of beauty is unwelcome in polite intellectual circles, and certainly has no place in academic critiques of high art. Yet it’s a word that readily comes to the lips of all of us – even to the most pedantic critics – when we are moved by the sight of a smiling baby, a mountain vista, an exquisitely formed orchid. What does it mean to say that an equation is beautiful? Fundamentally, it means that the equation can evoke the same rapture as other things that many of us ddescribe as beautiful. Much like a great work of art, a beautiful equation has among its attributes much more than mere attractiveness – it will have universality, simplicity, inevitability and an elemental power. Think of masterpieces like Cezanne’s Apples and Pears, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, Judi Dench’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth, Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of ‘Manhattan’. During my first experience of each of them, I soon realized that I was in the presence of something monumental in conception, fundamentally pure, free of excrescence and crafted so carefully that its power would be diminished if anything in it were changed.
An additional quality of a good scientific equation is that it has utilitarian beauty. It must tally with the results of every relevant experiment and, even better, make predictions that no one has made before. This aspect of an equation’s effectiveness is akin to the beauty of a finely engineered machine of the kind we hear about in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, when marine recruit Gomer Pyle starts talking to his rifle (‘Beautiful’, he whispers to it). The besotted Pyle praises its meticulous construction, delighting in the qualities that make it supremely fit for its lethal purpose. It would not be nearly so beautiful if it didn’t work.
“Enjoy the Onions”
Among my own collection of poetry, on the shelf above my desk, sits a dustless copy of High Windows. I first read it when I was a greenhorn student of subatomic physics, strugling to understand its fundamental equations and to appreciate their beauty. The collection was given to me by a Larkin-loving friend, a student of English literature, just a few days after the collection was published. Her message to me was the same as mine is now to you. ‘Enjoy the onions’.
So beautifully written, isn’t it?