What Does Beauty Have To Do with Physics?

As a Harvard undergraduate, Sarah Demers—now a professor at Yale University—didn’t have the job you would imagine of a young student of particle physics. She wasn’t running code, writing equations on whiteboards, or trawling data for statistically significant signals. Instead, she was sitting in a basement, transforming 10,000 sheets of gold-coated Mylar into an instrument that would go inside the Fermilab particle accelerator.

It was menial, tedious labor, and she was the only woman in the windowless room. Even after the transformation was complete, the work and the instrument itself didn’t scream “glamorous.” In its DIY, basement-built glory, the detector looked less like a sophisticated science instrument and more like someone toppled over a set of cheap garage shelves.

Before the job started, she thought she would hate it, and—worse—that she wouldn’t understand the underlying physics, that she was just messing around with foil sheets.

But she found that she did understand, and soon she could comprehend not only how the strange instrument worked, but also how it would help reveal fundamentals of physics. “I gave myself permission to think about underlying questions,” she says.

IDL TIFF file
The galaxy Messier 104

Inside the Fermilab particle accelerator, her instrument looked on as protons collided at near light-speed with their opposites—antiprotons—and the resulting particle shards decayed after the cataclysmic blast. By rewinding that action, physicists could dissect it in slow motion. From there, they could pick up its pieces, discover what matter is made of and the forces that hold it together, and pry it apart.

Despite the foil-wrapped contraption’s messiness, those close observations of the femtoscale explosions are what helped her see she beauty. “A lot of us go into science partly driven by how beautiful the theories are,” Demers says.

Physicists often describe their earliest experiences with the field as borderline spiritual, moments in which they realized that they—they!—can represent the world with math. They can describe how stars shrink to black holes, how hard you will hit your head if you slip on a banana peel, and how protons fall apart inside particle accelerators. That ability gives them a sense of control in the way that describing something gives humans dominion over it.

For many physicists, this fosters a desire to get to the very, very bottom of things: the theory of everything. Such a theory, many physicists often believe, should be beautiful, simple, elegant, aesthetically pleasing. All of the forces should fit under one umbrella; all particles need to emerge from a nested set of equations. No ifs, ands, buts, or loopholes. Physicists sometimes use these qualities, and their opposites—ugliness, caveats, asymmetries—as respective hot-and-cold indicators to guide them on the path toward understanding, describing, and conquering the universe.

The current gold standard for describing the nature of reality, the Standard Model, isn’t physicists’ ideal because, among other blemishes, it isn’t perfectly symmetric, and the way it glues fundamental forces together is a little kludgy. That’s partially why scientists have developed a new idea, called supersymmetry, which smooths and extends the Standard Model, giving each of those old-school particles a new-school “supersymmetric” counterpart.

Despite the fact that particle physicists have found no evidence of supersymmetry, they continue hunting for the elusive supersymmetric partners—partly because the theory is more aesthetically appealing than the Standard Model.

But not all physicists believe that beauty should count as indirect evidence in favor of an idea.

As Demers dug in to her research, she began to have doubts. Maybe it was okay for the universe to be a little bit ugly. And with that thought, Demers joined a faction of physicists who believe that the pursuit of beauty as truth may be leading the field of particle physics astray.

Semi-Symmetry

Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of physics at Dartmouth College, began his career the same way as Demers: searching for the underlying explanations of why the universe is the way it is. But about a decade ago, he felt Demers’s same uncertainty tugging at him. “You look outside, and what you see in nature is not really perfection and symmetry,” he says. “You see patterns and formats which are not exactly perfect. Animal, tree, cloud, face: They obviously have symmetry but not perfect symmetry. It’s not really perfection, but near perfection.”

He saw the blemishes in physics, too. There is more matter than antimatter, for example. If the two were perfectly balanced and symmetric, they would have annihilated each other like the particles in Demers’ detector, and the universe would be empty—there’d be no physicists to wonder why, or to high-five each other after the discovery of a beautiful but deadly cosmic balance. “Something happened during the history of the early universe to cause this,” he says. “That got me thinking that perhaps the insistence that we have in search of perfect symmetry is not a physics idea, but a bias.”

Demers’s epiphany took place as she was composing grant applications to fund her work after graduate school with the Large Hadron Collider, where the so-called “God particle” Higgs boson was discovered. Around 3,000 people worked on the ATLAS instrument team with her—attempting to discover physics that’s beyond the well-established Standard-Model. In the grant application, she also had to justify her experiment and the motivations behind it. Some of the reasons she jotted down, she realized, were purely aesthetic. It made her uncomfortable. “I personally had been sloppier about that than I should have been,” Demers says. “It struck me: You wonder, how equipped are we to be making aesthetic judgments given what we know now?” she adds. “How contrived is too contrived? And how fine-tuned is too fine-tuned?”

Millennia of Aesthetics

The human desire for a fine-tuned, aesthetically pleasing cosmos goes much further back than our ability to build particle accelerators. Plato believed the universe was made of geometry: simple, pure shapes that some deus snapped together to form a Lego-like reality. A sufficiently smart person, he reasoned, could unsnap those building blocks to reveal the fundamental forms.

Early astronomers also believed that planetary orbits were perfect circles. After all, in their view, God wouldn’t have doomed the planets to orbit along an imperfect path. Because every early astronomer started with this belief, it took Johannes Kepler six years to figure out that the evidence pointed to unappealing elliptical orbits instead. But when he allowed the experimental data to lead him toward a conclusion, he discovered a truth about the universe.

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The spiral arms of the galaxy M74

After Kepler’s data-driven discovery, Isaac Newton created the theories of gravitational force that described how and why orbits actually trace ellipses, though his ideas again reached back toward aesthetic pleasure. The same gravity that makes apples fall onto our heads also makes Earth go around the Sun. One beautiful force to control them both.

In this kind of thinking, Gleiser sees a different version of the ancients’ god-driven commitment to perfect circles. And in modern scientists’ pursuit of further unification—like making the physics of atoms and subatomic particles work with the classical physics that governs the everyday world—he sees a renewed religious impulse. “The idea that there is a force that describes everything is sort of a monotheistic cultural vice that we have,” he says. “Growing up in a culture for two or three thousand years where there is a god and a central command of things—I think that’s deeply ingrained in people’s heads.” In some sense, physicists have replaced their one true, symmetrically-faced God with one true, symmetric theory.

Take Einstein, who in the early 1900s said that general relativity was too beautiful to be wrong. Or physicist Paul Dirac, who in the 1960s said that the elegance of an equation outweighed the outcome of an experiment. It’s as though they had both taken to heart what poet John Keats wrote in 1820: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

For Demers and Gleiser, aesthetics as evidence loses its appeal when it is taken as…well…on par with evidence. For example, when the Large Hadron Collider failed to find any evidence of supersymmetry, many theorists tweaked their ideas about supersymmetry—saying, “Here’s why we don’t see any evidence”—rather than accepting that perhaps the evidence was pointing them elsewhere.

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The Cat's Eye Nebula

Demers believes particle physics is in a data-rich era and that physicists should let data lead the way. As the Large Hadron Collider continues its run, it produces more and more evidence for experiments physicists like her to analyze—and then for theorists explain. “I think we may be more likely to win by the data just forcing us in a direction, as opposed to having some great idea that’s aesthetically motivated that pans out to be true,” she says. In other words, it isn’t a physicist’s job to write mathematical poetry expounding upon the platonic “universeness” of the universe. It’s their job to describe the physical reality that we interact with, that we have concrete experimental data about.

And so, while beauty may be truth, the science of physics isn’t actually the pursuit of truth, nor the quest for beauty. The universe may be, at its most fundamental, as perfectly balanced as a Shakespearean sonnet. But if the data from experiments suggests not a sonnet but a modern prose poem—which is no less pretty, just different, unconventional, and more complicated—it is still physicists’ duty as scientists to analyze it.

Agnostic Quests

In April 2015, after a two-year break for an upgrade, the Large Hadron Collider spooled back up. This summer, the accelerator—including the ATLAS experiment that Demers is part of—will conduct its second data-taking run at these higher energies with more particle collisions. By the end of the season, it will have recorded twice as much information as it did in all of 2015. In that data, says Demers, physicists should still search for evidence of the Standard Model and supersymmetry—she’s not opposed to those theories. But they should also go on “agnostic quests,” she says, where they don’t go looking for something in particular. Instead, they should just look, and see what they find.

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The Veil Nebula is the remains of a massive star that exploded 8,000 years ago.

But some physicists may be reluctant to give up their beautiful theories, even if the data dictates they should. For example, while the Large Hadron Collider has so far failed to show evidence of supersymmetry, many have essentially said that the collision wasn’t powerful enough or that some small modifications are all that’s needed to fit the theory they love with the data they gathered.

“Supersymmetry has been around since 1974, for 42 years, and it doesn’t really have any evidence that it’s there. But people really bet their careers on this,” Gleiser explains. “Many physicists have spent 40 years working on this, which is basically their whole professional life.”

That may change in in ten years or so, he says, when further advances to the LHC could force the hangers-on to let go if the data they need doesn’t materialize. “If we don’t find evidence, people who still stick to it after that are doing it as a philosophical practice,” he says.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that the answers to life, the universe, and everything will be elegant. To physicists like Demers and Gleiser, that’s not the problem: The problem is the a priori assumption that it is so. And if the foundational principles of the universe turn out to be ugly or tedious, perhaps we can find the beauty beneath the mess.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on beauty in physics, read “How Physics Will Change—and Change the World—in 100 Years.”