Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The great physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar gave a famous lecture at the International Symposium in Honor of Robert R. Wilson in April, 1979 entitled "Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science." In the second paragraph of the lecture, he quotes Poincaré:
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.... I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp....
It is because simplicity and vastness are both beautiful that we seek by preference simple facts and vast facts; that we take delight, now in following the giant courses of the stars, now in scrutinizing with a microscope that prodigious smallness which is also a vastness, and, now in seeking in geological ages the traces of the past that attracts us because of its remoteness.
Good science is not forced and does not evolve from long hours in the lab and a work-centric lifestyle alone, though I admit that these are necessary to maintain a healthy scientific career. Rather, science is intimately related to one of the most basic of human traits: the impassioned drive to create order out of chaos.

And this is why, despite my affection for Poincaré, I disagree with part of the above quote. Beauty does not exist within Nature because its parts are inherently balanced and "harmonious." Beauty exists as a result of the mind imparting its own structure to random titillations of the senses. Men and women do not render Nature meaningful through physical exertion alone. The reduction of Nature to coherent understanding is the realm of Science.