MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Two Cultures and the Idea of Beauty

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

Large Hadron Collider at CERN being constructed

The Science Museum in London currently has an exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider on view. In connection with the exhibition, The Guardian invited theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed and novelist Ian McEwan to engage in a conversation about the rapport between science and the arts.

The chemist and novelist C.P. Snow coined the phrase “the Two Cultures” in his Rede Lecture in 1959 to characterize the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the sciences and the humanities that had come to replace the omnivorous appetite for knowledge of the Renaissance. Arkani-Hamed observes:

It’s an asymmetry that doesn’t really need to exist. Certainly many scientists are very appreciative of the arts. The essential gulf is one of language and especially in theoretical physics, the basic difficulty is that most people don’t understand our language of mathematics which we use to describe everything we know about the universe. And so while I’m capable of listening to and intensely enjoying a Beethoven sonata or an Ian McEwan novel it can be more difficult for people in the arts to have some appreciation for what we do. But at a deeper level there’s a commonality between certain parts of the arts and certain parts of the sciences.

He also observes that the idea of “beauty” is at its core something shared by science and the arts, explaining that “what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them.”

Beethoven's working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

Beethoven’s working MS for the opening measures of his Fifth Symphony

A year ago I ran into this great lecture on YouTube by Leonard Bernstein about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. And Bernstein used precisely this language – not approximately this language – exactly this language of inevitability, perfect accordance to its internal logical structure and how difficult and tortuous it was for Beethoven to figure out. He used precisely the same language we use in mathematics and theoretical physics to describe our sense of aesthetics and beauty.

Filed under: aesthetics, science


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