I actually had three titles for this blog article. The other two are “The Power of Aesthetics – Part 2” and “Mathematics, Beauty and Reality”. I am, in the next few hundred words, going to attempt to explain to artists why they should care about mathematics and quantum physics and further, to show that these fields are all actually intimately and inextricably bound together. Simples.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, an ambitious, young quantum physicist named Paul Dirac set himself a monumental task: to unify all of physics! He worked hard at his task, but he was driven by a belief – that for the mathematics to be right, it had to beautiful. Ponder that for a second. Why should the universe be inherently beautiful? Was Dirac actually relying on the power of aesthetics rather than admit that the universe and the mathematics that describes it might be messy? Why did he think he was right in that fundamental belief?
As it transpired, he eventually came up with an equation, now one of the most monumental in all of human thought. Don’t try to understand it. Just look at it’s simplicity and elegant beauty:
What this little equation predicts, if you know how to read it, is a remarkable symmetry. The equation predicts the existence of antimatter! For the first time in human history, a new family of particles, previously unknown to science, was predicted by an equation that was only trusted because it was beautiful. Symmetry, after all, is an aesthetic quality.
Not long after, it was found, experimentally, that anti matter, previously un-suspected and undetected, really did exist! Today, positrons, the anti matter equivalent of electrons, are routinely found in the lab. They are even used in PET scanners to see inside your brain. Thousands of people have had their lives saved because of early detection of brain tumours, thanks to anti matter!
The next quantum physicist I’d like to discuss, who loved to dabble with the profound strangeness of the quantum world, is Richard Feynman. His theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (also known as QED) sought to explain the relationship between electromagnetism and the quantum world. At first, his theory was not mathematical as much as it was diagramatic. Ponder that thought for a moment too. To describe how light and electromagnetism relate to matter, the guy drew pictures. Aren’t pictures the realm of the artist?
Mathematicians called Feynman all sorts of names, but he believed in his diagrams because they looked right. He just knew they were correct. Again, an aesthetic judgement or instinct was driving his adherence to and belief in his explanations of the bizarre quantum world.
It turned out his diagrams were right. Soon, experimenters were finding all the predicted sub atomic particles, the mathematicians caught up and formalised his theory in robust mathematical equations and the QED theory was found to successfully describe colours of materials, their shape, their texture, how they chemically bond and how organic processes work. Whoa! Colour? Shape? Texture? Aren’t they the things that artists deal with? Do you mean to say that the reason my paint sticks to my canvas and is the colour it is can be described by some unusual theory of physics initially explained by resort to pictures? Does all of life work the way it does because of the same pictures?
Pretty soon, the theory predicted and the experimenters found more sub atomic particles than they knew how to deal with. On discovering the muon, one physicist was heard to remark, “who ordered that?” Physicists were now facing a particle zoo. Exotic, esoteric, sub atomic particles everywhere, but no way to make sense of them all. The only thing that was certain was that the idea of the atom being the smallest, indivisible thing in the universe was now smashed to…well…atoms.
Feynman’s rival and nemesis was a man called Murray Gell-Mann (they shared a secretary at Caltech, poor woman!). He made sense of the particle zoo, using his “Eightfold Way”, an allusion to Buddhism! Gell-Mann applied a branch of mathematics called Group Theory, which concerns itself with the classification of patterns. Patterns! Another subject that is traditionally the domain of artists. This time, the patterns under examination were those of numbers, sub-atomic particles and reality itself. Thus was born the Quark Theory.
So everything we know about the very small in the universe was as a result of combining physics with aesthetics, beauty, colour, shape, texture, pattern and pictures. Is that not utterly remarkable? Is the fact itself not spectacularly beautiful?
I submit that physics, mathematics and art are all part of the same intellectual fabric. How could they not be? Next time you are considering your art, imagine how much better it might be if you learn a little multi-dimensional mathematics, some group theory and a little quantum electrodynamic theory.
On the other hand, for all our sakes, please also show physicists and mathematicians how to dance, paint, sing, sculpt and love.
It appears to matter.