A Beautiful Question

  • by Frank Wilczek
  • Narrated by Frank Wilczek
  • 13 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Does the universe embody beautiful ideas?
Artists as well as scientists throughout human history have pondered this "beautiful question". With Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek as your guide, embark on a voyage of related discoveries, from Plato and Pythagoras up to the present. Wilczek's groundbreaking work in quantum physics was inspired by his intuition to look for a deeper order of beauty in nature. In fact, every major advance in his career came from this intuition: to assume that the universe embodies beautiful forms, forms whose hallmarks are symmetry - harmony, balance, proportion - and economy. There are other meanings of "beauty", but this is the deep logic of the universe - and it is no accident that it is also at the heart of what we find aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.
Wilczek is hardly alone among great scientists in charting his course using beauty as his compass. As he reveals in A Beautiful Question, this has been the heart of scientific pursuit from Pythagoras, the ancient Greek who was the first to argue that "all things are number", to Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and into the deep waters of 20th century physics. Though the ancients weren't right about everything, their ardent belief in the music of the spheres has proved true down to the quantum level. Indeed, Wilczek explores just how intertwined our ideas about beauty and art are with our scientific understanding of the cosmos.
Wilczek brings us right to the edge of knowledge today, where the core insights of even the craziest quantum ideas apply principles we all understand. The equations for atoms and light are almost literally the same equations that govern musical instruments and sound; the subatomic particles that are responsible for most of our mass are determined by simple geometric symmetries. The universe itself, suggests Wilczek, seems to want to embody beautiful and elegant forms.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Goes beyond most pop science books

I had stopped reading popular science books because most of the new ones had nothing to say or they ended up in the land of woo. This book does neither.

This book can work for any audience. The artist will appreciate the beauty that the universe gives to us through its harmony of concordance, the obsessive reader of science books (as I used to be) will love the fact that the author takes one way beyond what they thought they knew and the PhD in physics will learn things he didn't know about the coherence of the universe.

In the beginning of the book he shows how the early Greeks established the comprehension of the world through numbers by first explaining music, and how the perfect Platonic forms relate to the real. At the heart of our understanding (and beauty) is the symmetry we use to understand the world around us. Every reader will end up absorbing his definition of symmetry: that which brings change without change.

He'll show how the first real jump in human understanding is when Pope Leo X ask Copernicus to fix that calendar so that Easter doesn't change relative to the seasons. Copernicus asked a question as a thought experiment "what if I were on the sun, how would that effect how I perceive the year on Earth".

The author takes the John Wheeler quote, "matter tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells space how to move". He'll show how that same phenomenon can be applied to all the fundamental forces of nature. Each of the forces of nature have a law of conservation associated with them. He'll go in detail on Emmy Noether and how she shows that (I like any book that gives Emmy Noether her rightful place in history). This is when the book starts to go way beyond all the other pop science books I've read over the years and never talks down to the listener.

He dissects Maxwell's equations and shows how they came to be and what they really mean. Ultimately, he explains Einstein's General Theory with the rule of relative perspective (Copernicus and Galileo) to the constant for the speed of light that pops up in Maxwell's equations. Once again the book is taking me places other science books fear to tread.

He'll go through the particle zoo and tell you what the Higgs Field really means and how the photon itself is modeled in an accelerator as if it did have weight. He'll tell the listener the problems with the standard model and how the extra dimensions needed for SUZY (string theory) allows for the solution to a host of standard model problems and how we are very close with the current levels of energy at the LHC in finding confirmations to this.

A couple of things. This book can be a difficult read. I would definitely recommend listening to it rather than reading it. Because, I if I had read it, I would have spent days on the up, down, charm quarks and how they go into the building the protons that build the universe. By listening to the book, I got the gist of the points and didn't overly dwell on the minutia. Another thing, this book is very comparable to Steven Weinburg's "To Explain the World". If you think this book is too difficult for you (that is you didn't follow what I wrote in this review), get his book instead. I recommend both books because they actually have a different philosophy on how they see the world. Wilczek would say from the fundamental models that describe the world emerge reality (e.g. atoms are an emergent property of our models). Weinburg would say that our understanding changes with our constricts we have There are differences in how each construct the structures underlying our universe ontologically. Each understand more than I ever will, I'm just fortunate that audible has made both books available to me.

We live in exciting times. The author quotes Keats, "that truth is beauty and beauty is truth" this book will show the listener why that is more true today than ever before.

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- Gary


This book, at its core is about beauty in nature and the power of that beauty to serve as a criterion for determining if a theory is true. Can we use beauty as a guide to discover the laws of the universe? It's a great question. Wilczek points out the trouble the beauty criterion has caused from time to time, e.g. Kepler's beautiful, but wrong, theory about planetary orbits. In the end, Wilczek thinks beauty is a reliable indicator of reality.

The book reads like poetry and Wilczek is equally artists and physicist. He takes his reader back to the group of ancient thinkers, who are collectively known as Pythagoras and examines the symmetry and beauty in Pythagoras' Theorem. Looking at consonance and dissonance, he illustrates how the inner ear recognizes beauty as symmetry, e.g. we like a perfect fifths because our neurons like the beautiful math. Thus maybe math *is* beauty. Maybe the laws of nature *are* beauty.

Wilczek also describes the beauty of optics and of Newtonian physics in general. He provides a history of its shortcomings, which helps him usher in the beauty of Maxwell's equations, relativity, and quantum theory. His explanation of the standard model is wonderful and a good primer for those who are not familiar with the various particles.

Symmetry, and more importantly the breaking of symmetry -- from the Higgs nonzero field through the matter the Higgs creates, and onto the fractal nature of the many forms that matter takes -- seems to Wilczek to be fundamental to our universe. This is why the laws themselves would be expected to be beautiful in this way. I would have liked for him to talk more about networks, chaos, emergence, scaling and the like.

I would suggest readers who liked this book and wanted to keep thinking about these should read:

- Ian Stewart's Fearful Symmetry
- Lisa Randall's Warped Passages
- Geoffrey West's Scaling in Biology
- Albert-László Barabási's Linked
- John Kricher's Ecological Planet (One review called this basic. It is no longer basic when looked at through the lens of networks and complex emerging systems)
- Falkowski's Life's Engines
- Strogatz's Sync
- Scharf's Gravity's Engines
- Carroll's Particle at the End of the Universe
- Holmes' Secret Life of Dust
- Gleick's Chaos
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- serine

Book Details

  • Release Date: 07-14-2015
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio