IS BEAUTY TRUTH, TRUTH BEAUTY? Philip Ball writes about scientists who consider that beauty—rather than experimental results—is evidence of a theory’s truth. He cites Einstein’s comments after an experiment by Arthur Eddington in 1919 had provided evidence for Einstein’s general theory of relativity by showing the Sun’s gravity bending starlight (visible because of a solar eclipse). Einstein was asked how he would have reacted if the experiment had not supported the theory. Einstein said: “Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord, for the theory is correct.” Ball also quotes Einstein that “the only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones.” Ball quotes other physicists, including Paul Dirac, who similarly have believed that beauty trumps experimental evidence. He cites a quantum theorist who wrote last year that the ugliness of certain theories might count against their credibility.
Ball says that the physicists are especially prone to belief in the importance of beauty in part because “their field has always been heir to Platonism—the mystical conviction of an orderly cosmos”. He gives the example of Max Tegmark’s contention that “mathematics constitutes the basic fabric of reality”. which Ball calls “a claim redolent of Plato’s most extreme assertions in Timaeus”. I posted on Tegmark’s theory here back in 2008, and Mary Jane commented that “Anybody who thinks that math describes a real world outside of concrete reality should put down his Plato and start reading Aristotle.”