The Future of Everything

May 28, 2013

Reviews of Truth or Beauty by David Orrell

Filed under: Reviews, Uncategorized — Tags: — David @ 6:13 pm

Here is a compilation of reviews of Truth or Beauty

Sources: The Sunday Times, Nature, V&A Magazine, Quill & Quire, Burning Books (podcast)


Critchley, Ian. “Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order by David Orrell. How scientists’ search for unity and symmetry may be leading them astray.” The Sunday Times, 20 January 2013.

For centuries, scientists have believed the universe to be rational and ordered, and that the laws governing it must therefore be straightforward. In this fascinating book, the mathematician David Orrell argues that this wish to find cosmic order has been motivated as much by an aesthetic impulse as by a quest for truth. Scientists and mathematicians want the universe to display qualities such as harmony, unity and symmetry. Above all, they desire it to be beautiful. James Watson, one of the biologists who discovered the structure of DNA, was convinced that ‘“the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty”.

But the universe has turned out to be much more complex and much less harmonious than scientists hoped. The double helix structure of DNA might be deemed elegant, but it is the “flaws”, or mutations, in DNA that drive evolution. Quantum theory has turned classical notions of the atom on their head. Artists such as the surrealists were quick to embrace the new science, incorporating ideas of uncertainty and spatial distortion into their work. But scientists have long struggled to accept the “unaesthetic” complexity their work has revealed. The search goes on for a single “Theory of Everything”, and Orrell shows that contemporary ideas such as string theory and supersymmetry are the latest in a long line of attempts to uncover universal unity.

This failure of scientists accurately to describe reality might not matter so much if confined to the theoretical, but Orrell shows it has real-life implications that affect us all. Traditional economic models, for example, are based on the assumption that the economy yearns to be stable. The inability of the models to predict and accommodate instabi1ity, he writes, was partly responsible for the current financial crisis. He is scathing about the search for beauty at the expense of practicality and substance: “It is much easier to claim that a theory is beautiful, than to show that it actually works or makes sense.”

Orrell is an engaging and witty writer, adept at explaining often complicated theories in clear language, and never allowing the detail to overwhelm his narrative. If there is one criticism of the book, it is that, surrealists aside, it is frustratingly light on how non-scientists define and interpret aesthetics. Orrell writes in passing about the Zen Buddhist aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which believes beauty to be impermanent and imperfect, and it would have been interesting to have more of such contrasting viewpoints. Nevertheless, he argues persuasively that scientists need to let go of outmoded aesthetic notions and embrace complexity — in other words, they must reflect reality rather than imposing ideas on reality. If they don’t, he says, “we risk seeing the model of the sunset rather than the sunset itself.”


“Books in brief.” Nature 491, 525, 22 November 2012.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell averred that mathematics has a beauty “sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection”. But is science inextricably allied to aesthetic beauty? In applied mathematician David Orrell’s exploration of the Pythagorean quest to realise the cosmos mathematically, the cracks in that paradigm show. Orrell swings from the ancient preoccupation with musical harmony and numerical ratios to Renaissance nature studies, the mechanistic approach and the physical sciences of today. Imperfect as it is, ‘messy’ science, he argues, has a novel beauty of its own.


Benjamin Eastham. “Review of Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order by David Orrell.” V&A Magazine, Spring 2013.

The proliferation of popular science programmes on television has accustomed us to bespectacled men talking breathlessly about the beauty of mathematical formulae. Realising that their audience will be overwhelmed by shameful feelings of inadequacy if asked to follow them through any algebraic proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity, these unnervingly jaunty ‘ scientists instead invoke the formula’s epigrammatic elegance as proof of its truth. The implication is that, as Keats said in a letter that echoes the famous line upon which the title of this book plays, “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth”. If you have to take the science behind E=MC2 on trust, you can none the less grasp its beauty.

The mathematician David Orrell here puts forward a compelling argument that this tendency to conflate truth with beauty is as much a hindrance as a help to scientific progress. He presents as an illuminating historical example the tortuous amendments made to early models of the solar system in order to describe its operations in terms of perfect circles. It was a source of disappointment to even Johannes Kepler that the planetary orbits should be discovered to trace less pleasing ellipses.

We assume that such delusions of flawless celestial order are confined to a past in which scientific endeavour was geared towards revealing the workings of a rational god. Yet Orrell contends that many physicists continue to allow a faith in the intrinsic orderliness of underlying principles to blind them to empirical evidence to the contrary (a contention contested by the smattering of engineers and scientists I consulted). The ultimate expression of this tendency is the search for a single rule that will rationalise every action of the universe, a Grand Unified Theory that could “fit on the front of a T-shirt”. It is remarkable that, in a society sceptical of grand narratives, the hypothetical ability of physics to formulate a pithy Theory of Everything is tantamount to received wisdom. I found myself worrying, as Orrell took me at walking pace through the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat, at how hubristic we might seem to future generations.

The three properties of beauty which “apply to mathematical formulae and scientific theory as well as they apply to art or architecture” are identified by Orrell as “elegance, unity and symmetry”. It struck me on reading this that the aesthetic principles to which scientists are so devoted would see them banished to the naughty step at any self- respecting art school. This conception of beauty, wedded to principles pre-dating Socrates, might to anyone even loosely familiar with a century’s progress in art, poetry and music seem at best archaic and at worst reactionary.

It is ironic, too, that the artistic insurrections of the last century were in large part conceived to keep step with science. Picasso, Braque, Schoenberg, Dali and Kandinsky are among those to have pioneered revolutionary aesthetics that drew on new ideas of time and space. Writing about that period, Orrell acknowledges that “relativity and quantum physics together were pointing the Way to an alternative conception of beauty … which artists were more willing to take seriously than most scientists”.

Instead, he argues, science continues to play down evidence that contradicts its predilection towards unity and harmony. Among the speculative frameworks to reassert the primacy of those principles is the exceptionally elegant theory of supersymmetry, which posits that every elementary particle possesses an equal and opposite twin, a dark matter doppelganger. The neatness of the idea is seductive, but experimental evidence remains elusive.

This prompts Orrell to question whether cultural factors are responsible for science’s aesthetic conservatism. Such hierarchical, ordered notions of metaphysical beauty might be “a projection of a particular gendered worldview” in a discipline dominated by men, and also bear traces of the military’s close links to research institutions. It is thrilling to question the high-minded objectivity of scientific discourse, and Orrell makes a convincing case for the adoption of new aesthetic principles that acknowledge the self-creative and unpredictable nature of “complex systems” — such as the weather and collective economic behaviour — which stubbornly refuse to adhere to predictions based on rational assumptions.

This rallying call for a new approach — “we need to change our aesthetic, from seeing the world as a machine to seeing it as a lived system” — brought to mind the sculptures of Eva Hesse, the performances of Joseph Beuys and John Dewey’s Art as Experience, which argued (in 1932!) that the “formal conditions of artistic form” are “rooted deep in the world itself”. This engrossing book begins by questioning the assumption that truth and beauty are coextensive, but ends with the more exciting proposal that we must formulate new ideals of beauty if we are to advance in our search for the truths that both scientists and artists pursue.


Alex Good. “Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order.” Quill & Quire, January/February 2013.

Due to the nature of science itself, scientific truth is always provisional. And beauty, so the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Given these shifting sands, physicist David Orrell has taken on a tricky subject in his treatise on how aesthetic paradigms have influenced the history and development of science.

In Orrell’s conception, aesthetics describe not just the philosophy of beauty, but any mode of perception motivated by a set of values. He illustrates how one particular aesthetic – characterized by “masculine,” “right-handed” properties such as elegance, harmony, symmetry, integrity, unity, and order – has dominated scientific thinking since the days of Pythagoras, leading to a misconception of the essential nature of the universe. In opposition to this reductionist view, Orrell proposes a “complexity approach,” which involves shifting from a mechanical paradigm to a natural, organic one that values the whole over the parts, context over abstraction, possibility over predictability.

Orrell casts a wide net, both in terms of historical scope and the range of disciplines covered, moving from math and physics to economics and sociology. While such a broad approach may appeal to the general reader, it has the effect of blurring the book’s focus somewhat. Orrell provides a general history of major developments in science that aren’t always strictly on topic. It is only in the book’s final sections that the author addresses his main point, which is that the historically dominant mechanical aesthetic in science is showing itself to be less reliable, and indeed less grounded in the reality of our modern age (his major targets in this respect are string theory and deterministic economic modelling).

Orrell presents a fascinating and mostly coherent account of recent developments in science, though the paradigm shift he proposes may be less radical than it seems. A complexity aesthetic may just be the next step in the natural evolution in scientific thinking, a course adjustment made in order to deal with new fields of scientific inquiry and new evidence provided by emerging technologies. Furthermore, whether a delight in disorder, impermanence, and imperfection will provide us with concepts as productive and “true” as the mechanical models of the past is a question that has yet to be answered.

If it does, we may look back upon Truth or Beauty as an important manifesto for our age. But even if it doesn’t, Orrell has provided an intriguing way of thinking about how we got here.


Burning Books, 26 September 2014.


Listen to the podcast review from Burning Books.

Also available for download on iTunes.


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