Sunday, March 2, 2008

Is Beauty Truth?

Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation, argued that beauty does not live in the objects themselves, but in the interaction between the object and the viewer. He feels museums need to change, to be agents of change. Today they’re an 18th century idea, embedded in a 19th century box (usually a palace) , trying to live in the 21st century. Guggenheim’s latest project is to be in Abu Dhabi.

A stunningly interesting approach to the theme question came from Garrett Lisi, the surfer physicist. Physicists have been searching for the Elusive Theory of Everything to unite classical mechanics, quantum field theory, and gravitation. Lisi came at his theory by plotting characteristics of all the elementary particles in various dimensions. He twisted the view like a kaleidoscope to produce beautiful symmetric patterns, finally arriving at the so-called E8 pattern. E8 needs 12 particles to fill in the symmetry. One of these is the Higgs particle, which other theory has proposed but is yet to be discovered; the other 11 are Lisi’s candidates to enable his Unified Theory.
Lisi has eschewed the academic environment since completing his PH.D. in physics, he disdains string theory, and lives in a van, camping by surfing beaches in Maui. He published his theory in late 2007 and caused great controversy. If he's right, it would be the upset scientific story of our time – the non-establishment maverick having the break-through insight. As a mathematician, I was trained to believe that what is elegant is often or usually right. Clearly I don’t understand the physics at this level, but sentimentally, you gotta root for this underdog. And how appropriate to the theme “Is Beauty Truth?”

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