Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature.
There are all kinds of theories about what makes a room sound good. One of the leading researchers in the field compares concert hall acoustics to tasting wine: some characteristics are easyily classifiable, but perception and taste are part of the equation, too. Another has suggested that understanding the way sound reflects in a room, not the shape of it, is the critical component to good concert hall design.
But the craziest theory comes from a researcher named Zackery Belanger. He thinks that acoustics is primarily a geometric problem, a theory so radical that he was forced out of his Ph.D. program because his advisor disagreed with it.
From fluid dynamics to finance, creatures like the Weierstrass function have challenged our ideas about the relationship between mathematics and the natural world. Mathematicians around the time of Weierstrass used to believe that the most useful mathematics was inspired by nature, and that Weierstrass’ work did not fit into that definition. But stochastic calculus and Mandelbrot’s fractals have proven them wrong. It turns out that in the real world—the messy, complex real world—monsters are everywhere. “Nature has played a joke on the mathematicians,” as Mandelbrot put it. Even Weierstrass himself fell victim to the trick. He created his function to argue that mathematics should not be based only on physical observations. His followers believed that Newton had been constrained by real-life intuition and that, once free of these limitations, there were vast, elegant new theories to be discovered. They thought that mathematics would no longer need nature. Yet Weierstrass’ monster has revealed the opposite to be true. The relationship between nature and mathematics runs deeper than anyone ever imagined.
Illustration : Alessandro Gottardo
From the Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek :
Rather than recognizing the beauty of laws otherwise discovered, we use principles of beauty – vast symmetry and a high ratio of output to input – to enable discovery. When this works, we have an “anthropic” explanation of the laws’ beauty: If they were not beautiful, we would not have found them.
Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope. The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science. It is always a statement about science.