Summer is over, and the glorious month of September is here. Today marks the end of my long blogcation, and I welcome back any readers who were impatiently pining for new posts :). I think the coming year will be an exciting one. (Aren’t they all).
The word “elegant” is the highest compliment in science. The meaning of elegance is a bit shadowy. Simplicity may be part of it, but not necessarily. What makes something elegant is the sense one has, after reading it and understanding it, that it is of course the only and the perfect explanation. It is a solution that fits even more than the question originally asked, and its derivation follows naturally and in a pleasing way. E = mc^2 was elegant as was the double helix.
Stephen Hawking wrote in The Grand Design that “Ever since Newton, and especially since Einstein, the goal of physics has been to find simple mathematical principles of the kind Kepler envisioned, and with them to create a unified theory of everything that would account for every detail of the forces we observe in nature.” But Hawking admits that all simple and elegant Theories of Everything have failed, and the only candidates for theories that can include gravity are anything but simple or elegant. It seems that elegant solutions are becoming rarer as we probe deeper into the mysteries of nature.
Einstein and many who came after him were convinced that the final Theory of Everything, which would combine gravity and quantum theory, would turn out to be a simple, profound, and lovely equation. By now, it is safe to say that it isn’t going to be that way at all. String theory, the standard model of particle physics, and a good deal of the newest evolutionary biological theories, might be correct (or not) but nobody accuses them of being elegant.
I have read that some physicists are getting very frustrated with the results from the LHC, which are not helping resolve outstanding questions in particle physics. This reminds me of the sense I had later in my research career that whenever I did an experiment to try to find an answer to a specific question, I always got an entirely unexpected answer, one that actually raised many more questions. So what is our Book of Nature, our Book of God’s Works, trying to tell us?
I like the notion of a simple all-encompassing equation that explains a great deal. That is the holy grail of science, and it is wonderful thing to come across such elegant theoretical marvels. But the realist in me sees the contradictions, dead ends, and false starts, and concludes that the universe is trying to tell us something, something that we haven’t really wanted to hear. What it is telling us is “Sorry guys, the easy stuff is over. Nice work with classical mechanics and momentum and relativity and the Hardy-Weinberg equation and Mendelian inheritance. Great stuff. But now comes the hard part. And you are going to need a larger computer.” Or perhaps a whole different approach.
I wrote a post a while back about the stop signs of nature – those signals that indicate that we can go no further toward truth using our previously trustworthy vehicles on a well-known road. I believe we will come across more and more of these STOP, GO NO FURTHER signs as we struggle to make sense of an increasingly complex universe. With time, we have seen the likelihood of a simple understanding of everything recede with every new discovery. It’s possible that at some point, the famous New Yorker cartoon by Sidney Harris that shows the words “and then a miracle occurs” in the middle of a complex equation will become real. This is a very controversial idea, and I don’t expect much agreement, certainly not from fellow scientists.
Perhaps the message of that cartoon, not to mention of all the available scientific evidence, is that elegance is still a beautiful thing, but we are looking for it in the wrong places. It might not be found in an equation at all. It might not even be found using standard scientific, methodological naturalism approaches to reality. So what is our Book of Nature, our Book of God’s Works, trying to tell us? Maybe we need to check out some other Books more carefully, is one possible answer. Or maybe we need to write a new one.