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Today, we at 13.7 are honored to host as a guest blogger Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists. Wilczek won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to our understanding of how quarks behave inside particles called hadrons, of which protons and neutrons are the most familiar. But Wilczek's talents go well beyond that of an amazingly creative physicist. He is also author of countless articles and several books, including The Lightness of Being (2008), Fantastic Realities (2006) and, with his wife Betsy Devine, Longing for the Harmonies (1988). Today, Frank writes about a topic he covers at length in his most recent book, A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. Published in July, A Beautiful Question is an inspiring meditation on humanity's search for beauty and unity in nature.
A Beautiful Question is a long meditation on a single question: Does the world embody beautiful ideas?
I thought about this from many angles, bringing in history, art, music, psychology and philosophy as well as physical science. I concluded, after surveying the evidence, with an emphatic "Yes!"
But to appreciate the significance of that answer, it's important to ask another question: Might it have been otherwise? Can we imagine that the world might not embody beautiful ideas — that fundamental understanding of how the world works could be messy or unattractive?
We can approach those counterfactual questions through thought experiments.
It's easy to imagine that, someday, developments in computer power, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will create self-aware beings whose "world" is, from our perspective, a programmed simulation. If a self-aware iSuper Mario began to analyze the laws of his world, he'd find a vast collection of loosely connected, quirky rules, reflecting the whims of the programmer. I think he'd find it — as we do — interesting and amusing, but not profoundly beautiful.
Alternatively, it's entertaining to consider how "our" universe might appear to different sorts of intelligent observers.
We humans are, above all, visual creatures. Our sense of vision, of course, and — in a host of less obvious ways — our deepest modes of thought, are conditioned by our interaction with light. Each of us, for example, is born to become an accomplished, if unconscious, projective geometer. That ability is hardwired into our brain circuits. It is what allows us to interpret the two-dimensional image that arrives on our retinas as a world of objects in three-dimensional space — and to catch a fly ball.
Our brains contain specialized modules that let us construct, with no conscious effort, a dynamic worldview based on three-dimensional objects located in three-dimensional space. We do this beginning from two two-dimensional images on the retinas of our eyes (which in turn are the product of light rays emitted or reflected from the surfaces of external objects, which propagate to us in straight lines).
|A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design|
Read an excerpt of this book
What Did Pythagoras Mean By "All Things Are Number"? by Professor Frank Wilczek