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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


Truth or Beauty

David Orrell

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To purchase Truth or Beauty

Title: Truth or Beauty
Author: David Orrell
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 288 pages
Availability: Truth or Beauty - US
Truth or Beauty - UK
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  • Science and the Quest for Order

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting ideas; well-presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In Truth or Beauty David Orrell considers how aesthetics, and specifically a reductionist ideal of 'beauty', have influenced scientific thought. He shows how scientists have repeatedly sought to establish orderly, unified, comprehensive, often neatly symmetric systems governed by rules that are simple and straightforward, and universally applicable -- the kinds of equations that neatly fit on T-shirts. As he notes however, the aesthetic vision of the irreducible -- the original atomic view, for example, of there being simple, basic building blocks to all matter -- often turns out not to be accurate, as reality proves to be much more complex than first thought and hoped for; in addition, the rules often don't work universally but only under certain circumstances, and complex systems -- including the many real-world ones that affect our everyday lives, from the weather to the functioning of the human organism -- exhibit emergent behavior ("properties which emerge from the system but cannot be predicted using knowledge of the system's components alone").
       Orrell notes -- and wonders:

     While a sense of unity and wholeness -- the feeling of being connected to a larger purpose -- is a feature of many (particularly monotheistic) religious and spiritual traditions, in science it is set as an explicit goal to be achieved using mathematics. But where does this bold faith in unity, which does often seem religious in its nature, come from ? Why is everyone united about unity ?
       Indeed, as he demonstrates with many of his examples:
the quest for unification can become counterproductive -- because it acts as a distraction, and also because its stance is one of control and manipulation.
       Orrell begins with the ancient Greeks, early proponents of aesthetic scientific world-views, from Pythagoras to the influential idea of atomism -- which, he notes: "helped to define an aesthetic which scientists continue to follow". As he notes, many of these theories were more theoretical than in any way practical -- ancient Greek technical capabilities were far short of observing anything near 'atomic' level (even just as they understood it) -- while later world-views that followed the same ideals had to constantly be refined based on experience and data: after a while it became clear that the earth and the other planets orbited the sun, for example, rather than everything orbiting the earth, and even then it took a while to catch on to the fact that the orbits were not neat circles but rather ellipses. (Of course, further complications arose when it became clear that space isn't nicely Euclidean, either.)
       Orrell focuses at length on atomic theory, since that has proven, at every stage, to be far more complex than scientists had initially hoped. While atoms may be the building blocks of matter, they aren't the irreducible basic ones the Greeks had posited. Indeed, exploring the nature of atoms continues to prove to be a can of worms (or rather, of subatomic particles). Nevertheless, scientists continue to try to cling to the picture of an aesthetically pleasing neat picture -- leading also, he suggests, to rather narrow-minded ways of considering the problem(s):
The strict adherence to the orthodoxy of the Copenhagen interpretation, which lasted until at least the 1960s, seems in many respects to be an attempt to save appearances; to emphasize the hard computational power that the theory offered and repress the contradictions at its core.
       Among Orrell's arguments is also that it is specifically 'hard' sciences that cling to this hope for a simple, clear aesthetic, and that this corresponds also to specifically male ideals (and ideals of masculinity) -- and that this is one of the reasons physics has remained such a male preserve, with ridiculously few female practitioners. He suggests, too, that:
It must have come as a shock to the young, male champions of quantum theory when they discovered that their equations describing the atom were actually soft, fuzzy, and uncertain -- in other words, stereotypically female. The Copenhagen interpretation can itself be interpreted as an attempt to shift the discussion back to the safe ground of conventional "male" mathematics.
       (For more on the Copenhagen interpretations, see for example, Louisa Gilder's The Age of Entanglement, Mara Beller's Quantum Dialogue, and Jeremy Bernstein's Quantum Leaps.)
       String theory is just one manifestation -- but a very clear one -- of what can be considered an aesthetic-led scientific theory that tries to explain everything. As Orrell notes:
     The main problem with string theory is that, like other such theories, so far it has not told us anything measurable about nature that we didn't already know.
       Which makes for a nice (aesthetic) picture-of-the-world, but one that's of limited practical value -- as is also the case with the various aesthetically appealing multiverse theories.
       Speaking of practical uses, Orrell also notes that an awful lot of money has gone into the building of particle accelerators and the like, whose purpose is to smash atoms and figure out what the constituent bits might be; indeed, Orrell himself worked on the eventually abandoned (after $2 billion were spent on it ...) Texas Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project. Again, he sees this as masculine science triumphing over reason -- as politicians and public alike have been supportive based largely on the fact that atom-smashing had proved to be so useful in leading to the very impressive atomic bomb, and anything war-toy-related continues to be a fairly easy sell (though not that easy: it's no coincidence that the Texas SSC project collapsed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and hence the end of the Cold War and that specific threat). As far as an actual (non-bomb) bang for the buck, research dollars devoted to particle accelerators of course rank only behind what was thrown away on the Apollo moon missions in how poor the direct returns-on-investment they yield are.
       Complex systems -- most notably and obviously, he suggests, the weather/climate and economics -- show some of the weaknesses of reductionist thinking: efficient market theory is premised on idealized states that don't exist, while the difficulty with predicting weather -- barely improved, in many respects, over decades now, despite incredible gains in how much data is analyzed -- can certainly not be blamed on the proverbial flapping of a butterflies wings. The consequences of blind reliance on theories that are aesthetically appealing but don't adequately correspond to real-life situations were certainly brought home recently, as near-universal reliance on long-entrenched (and neat and elegant) economic theories led to essentially all economists being as blindsided as everyone else by the recent financial crises.
       Orrell notes that quantum physics, as currently understood, defies logic:
Things like duality, uncertainty, and entanglement cannot be handled using everyday logic. But is the problem with quantum physics -- or is it with logic ?
       Orrell argues that the path forward is to step away from the rigid dominant aesthetics that seek to reduce everything to pretty, simple little formulae (fit for the T-shirt ...) that are meant to be comprehensive theories of everything and instead take a more balanced approach -- one less concerned with 'logic' and more in tune with real-world experience. He puts some of this in terms of left-brain/right-brain activity, arguing science has long been dominated by:
a left-brained, theoretical approach that considers holistic or systems thinking to be dangerously woolly.
       He suggests some economists are already beginning to realize this, and that in addressing climate change, for example, a similar shift in how the issues and problems are treated is necessary.
       Truth or Beauty is an agreeably readable account, with Orrell offering a good, large variety of examples. Admittedly, few of these are treated in greater depth, and there are certainly places where readers might take issue with some of his summary conclusions (or simply his summaries), but the broad-stroke approach is fairly effective (even as it allows for considerable nitpicking). Oddly, the book is rather thin and selective on philosophy and theory of science -- paradigm-shifter T.S.Kuhn rates a single mention, Feyerabend none at all; an obviously relevant work such as Andrew Pickering's seminal Constructing Quarks is ignored (in a book with a 22-page bibliography) -- as Orrell too can be a bit simplistic and reductionist in his argument about the complex system that is scientific advancement ..... Nevertheless, overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking book that offers a good overview and introduction to the issues and should certainly lead to further fruitful discussion.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 December 2012

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Truth or Beauty: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian mathematician David Orrell was born in 1962.

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© 2012 the complete review

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