The Science of Why Nature Is Beautiful to Us

Science and art are complementary disciplines, according to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek. Together they allow us to explore whether the world embodies beautiful ideas.

Frank Wilczek: People sometimes ask, "What does it all mean?" And that’s a very hard question to address because it’s not clear what an answer would look like. A question that I found much more fruitful, that I think one can address sensibly, is does the world embody beautiful ideas? That’s a question we can address on both sides — what is the world and what is beauty? What is the world, of course, is the kind of question that science addresses. What is beauty is something that art and philosophy and human culture addresses. And so we can look at the record of what people have found beautiful and what they were hoping for in their understanding of the world with what the remarkable understanding of the world we’ve achieved in recent years looks like. And we can therefore frame a meaningful discussion and a meaningful question, a meaningful meditation on the issue of does the world embody beautiful ideas.

Some of the things that people at the beginning of this adventure were hoping for and had in their visions was in Pythagoras, the idea that the world embodies harmonies. That he talked about a music of the spheres. Plato had a theory of atoms based on the so-called platonic solids, which are very symmetric objects. They were hoping that our sense of harmonies somehow agreed with what nature likes to use in her construction of the world. And more specifically with Plato and the platonic solids — the idea that ideas, that symmetry and mathematical perfection provide the building principles that the world embodies. Those themes, which Pythagoras and Plato articulated very well in the early days, have inspired people for centuries prior to the modern times when we found that nature does, in fact, use those ideas.

Visual imagery is very important to our understanding of the world because humans are intensely visual creatures depending on how you do the accounting. Between 20 and 50 percent of our brain is devoted to processing visual information and we have some very impressive capabilities in that direction. We face in interpreting the world a very challenging problem that we’re good at solving. We’re so good at it that we don’t consciously realize how difficult it is. That’s the problem of taking the electromagnetic radiation, the light that impinges on our retina, giving a two-dimensional image that’s all scrambled and interpreting that as a world of three-dimensional objects moving around in three-dimensional space. That’s a very difficult, in fact, impossible mathematical problem, but we have many sophisticated tricks and rules of thumb plus a systematic, although unconscious knowledge of projected geometry so that we can recognize the same thing seen from different positions represents the same object. These were, when they were made conscious as geometric theorems and discoveries, astonishing achievements that when [Filippo] Brunelleschi discovered the science of perspective in 1420 help kick off the glorious episode of the Italian Renaissance and has been a foundation of art ever since.

Science and art are complementary disciplines. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek explains how, together, they allow us to explore whether the world embodies beautiful ideas.


"What is the world?" That's a question for science. "What is beauty?" That's where art, philosophy, and culture come in. And for thousands of years we've been seeking out forms of harmony, symmetry, and perspective to help us understand it all, whatever "it all" ultimately means.

Participatory democracy is presumed to be the gold standard. Here’s why it isn’t.

Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

Photo by Nicholas Roberts /Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
  • Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
  • Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Keep reading Show less

Astronomers spot only the 2nd interstellar object ever seen

An amateur astronomer discovers an interstellar comet on its way to our Sun.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Surprising Science
  • The comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) was spotted by an amateur astronomer.
  • The object is moving so fast, it likely originated outside our solar system.
  • The comet should be observable for another year.
Keep reading Show less

McDonald's wants to automate its drive-thrus with A.I.

The fast-food company recently agreed to acquire a tech company whose "speech-to-meaning" technology might soon be interpreting customers' orders.

RJ Sangosti / Contributor
Technology & Innovation
  • McDonald's has agreed to acquire Apprente, whose speech recognition technology can supposedly understand complex orders.
  • McDonald's has acquired two other tech companies this year: one that updates drive-thru menus, and another that uses mobile apps to boost customer engagement.
  • The company hasn't said whether the new A.I. is likely to replace human workers.
Keep reading Show less