The Beauty of Physics

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Paolo Beltrame, SJ

 Paolo Beltrame, SJ / Art / 8 November 2021


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The greatest poet of the English language

Whenever physicists confer, they are likely to declare their belief in the beauty of the laws of nature. It must also be acknowledged that passion for beauty and search for harmony are part of the very essence of being human. Now, after these initial assertions, two things should be highlighted. The first is a question: Isn’t an “act of faith” – such as that in the beauty of natural laws – exactly what a scientist should avoid when engaging in research? The second is a statement: Passion for harmony could distort objectivity and cause cognitive distortions, from which scientific discourse should be free.

Leaving this issue aside for a moment, we might ask ourselves who is the greatest English-language poet of all time.  Poets are often  counted among those who seek beauty: Is it William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or George Gordon, Lord Byron? It is very probable that this question will never have an uncontested and satisfactory answer. It may be impossible to reach a general consensus.

For Graham Farmelo, however,[1] the greatest English-speaking poet of all time was Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac.[2] Dirac was an English theoretical physicist who, together with Erwin Schrödinger, received the Nobel Prize in 1933 “for the discovery of new forms of atomic theory,” which later became quantum mechanics. Perhaps Farmelo lacks the literary ability to discern who is “the greatest of the English-speaking poets.” Perhaps his statement is meant to be highly provocative and an invitation to reflect both on the similarities between physics and poetry – and the fact that they need each other – and on how the subtle power of beauty manifests itself in both fields.  

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