Monday, March 23, 2009

Math, Science, and Beauty

Continuing cavil-with-3QD day here on this precious, precious blog, this assertion came along with an interesting discussion of foreseeable advances in computer-based mathematical proofs:

There’s general consensus that really genius-level mathematics is beautiful—purely and uncorruptedly beautiful, the way colored light is, or angels. More particularly, it’s regarded as beautiful in a way that science is not. With a few exceptions—Einstein’s theories of relativity, string theory, maybe Newton and Darwin—no matter how much science impresses people, it rarely moves them aesthetically. Science and mathematics stand in roughly the same relation as journalism and fiction—the latter in each set being more admired because it gives us the sense of having moved in a wholly different realm of being.
I would be the last to deny the elegance of mathematics -- even if we had nothing more than Euclid's demonstrations, math's contributions to beauty would be forever assured -- but I am not ready to concede that its most beautiful examples occupy "a wholly different realm of being" from those of the best science.

And I am less moved than baffled by the math-as-fiction, science-as-journalism analogy. I would prefer to compare math with lyric poetry and science with narrative fiction; or math as abstract painting and science as portraiture or scenery. In sculpture, math would be the Henry Moore to science's Rodin; within poetry, math might be Emily Dickinson to science's Shakespeare. I don't think much of these analogies, but I prefer them to math-as-fiction versus science-as-journalism.

All of which goes to show that in questions of beauty, opinions differ.

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