A theoretical physicist searches for the design behind nature’s beauty.

Illustration by Ed Luce

When does it first strike you, this feeling? When you’re a kid, seeing the ocean weave through trees from the back seat of your parents’ car? In high school, perched on warm bleachers and watching the sun flare bright against the tubas in the marching band? Or perhaps you’re swimming in a backyard pool, squinting up at the black tarp of night above, and the feeling seeps into your ears along with the water. Later in life, it finds you in smaller moments. When you’re spreading magazines in a neat spiral on a coffee table, or curling your fingers around the pleasantly rounded edges of a cellphone. Sometimes those big, chest-swelling moments come back: You’re camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or driving to the dentist’s office in slopping rain, or sitting on the shore with your toes in hot, wet sand—and it’s there once more.

So what is that feeling? There isn’t one single word for it—that sudden inexplicable intensity of an encounter with something you find indisputably beautiful. It’s a wondrous, complete sense of satisfaction. Of things falling into place. But if there isn’t a word, could there be an explanation? A yearning for one drives the theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek’s searching and earnest book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.

To Wilczek—who received the Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work in particle physics—the innate human appreciation for beauty lies in the “deep design” of nature itself. In other words, we’re infatuated with beauty because the universe was created to be beautiful. Wilczek’s aim is grand, perhaps daringly so: He argues that beauty is the core organizational principle of every speck in the universe. The “beautiful question” of the book is a simple one: “Is the world a work of art?”

History books reveal that humans have always built their civilizations around two things: an obsessive desire for beauty and an analytical quest for truth. It’s a classic tale—the artist and the scientist, two halves of society. Wilczek tries to marry the two, arguing that they are one and the same: A search for the scientific is a hunger for the beautiful. Beauty is order, and order is beauty. His argument isn’t spiritual, but based on fact—as an agnostic, the author steers well clear of religion, and the result is a bracing meditation that leans convincingly on hard science.

All forces of nature, from electromagnetism to gravity, “embody, at their heart, a common principle: local symmetry,” Wilczek writes. It’s this symmetry that calls to us. When we declare a certain color combination aesthetically pleasing, what we’re really admiring is its perfect order. Our love of lakes and rivers is a way of paying homage to the timely organization of waves, to the synchronized dance of wind and air.

Frank Wilczek
Frank Wilczek.

Photo by Andrei Linde

This isn’t an easy idea to buy into, at first, and Wilczek’s unabashed geekiness doesn’t always help. Each chapter of A Beautiful Question grapples with a different philosophical or scientific field, jumping erratically from number theory to platonic solids to sound waves. The book’s 448 pages include a timeline, index, and dictionary of scientific terms, leading it to feel, at times, like a physics textbook disguised as an artistic reflection. That the book is so technical shouldn’t come as a surprise, though; Wilczek’s previously published works all deal with intricate physics theories, and most are not made for the lay reader.  Given all this, the book should be overwhelming to read—or even unpleasant.

But it isn’t. That’s because all 448 pages are buoyed by a singular, fervent enthusiasm. This is the book of a love-struck physicist—one who leaps, within the span of a page, from providing a dense explanation of photons to delightedly comparing atoms to “tiny musical instruments.” The word question—as in, the beautiful question driving everything—is endearingly capitalized every time, as if Wilczek frets that the reader might forget its importance. And sustained above all the science lessons is the clear note of the book’s unremitting love of the universe.

If we’re instinctively obsessed with beauty because it’s orderly, then this book—a book that organizes beauty into order—tugs at that very instinct in order to foster our understanding. At every turn, Wilczek cleverly reels the science of beauty back to basic organizational principles, whether visual or abstract. Astronomy is shown to operate within simple rules of geometry. Music is deconstructed into its primary form, auditory harmony. The same principles of symmetry and economy, which Wilczek calls the “hallmarks of nature’s artistic style,” make their way into Newton’s method of reductionism and James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics. Even if we can’t fully understand the laws of nature themselves, Wilczek lets us appreciate how they are mirrored and embedded within one another, catering once again to our deep, universally programmed need for organization.

Of course, the subject that Wilczek explores is by no means a new one. Phi, the golden ratio that seems to govern the proportions of everything from seashell spirals to man-made financial markets, has captivated mathematicians for more than 2,000 years, as just one of the many puzzlingly organized aspects of the natural world that scholars have explored. For this reason, Wilczek could have easily titled his book not A Beautiful Question but The Beautiful Question, the one that has consumed humans for all of history, the one that may well be unanswerable. To Wilczek’s first-page question (“Is the world a work of art?”), his response is a resounding yes. But while Wilczek mulls over the larger question that answer demands—why does this artful arrangement of a universe exist?—he does not actually answer it.

A Beautiful Question is a meditation, not a solution. Reaching the end of the book offers the same rush of satisfaction, of comfort, that you’d get from cleaning out a messy closet, or assembling a piece of furniture—but on an immense, cosmic scale, accompanied by a strange and buoyant joy. You feel as though you are in high school again, and you are on the bleachers of a football field once more, watching the sun strike across the grass just so. This time, you better understand the way the feeling resonates all the way down to your bones.

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek. Penguin.

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