Tim Maudlin, Philosopher of Physics, on the Perseid meteor showers.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
TM For the last two years, and for the first time in my life, I’ve been in the right place at the right time to see those meteor showers. I’ve been in Croatia, and you can get to places with very deep, dark skies. It happens in the beginning of August, so it’s very pleasant, amazingly engaging and somehow very deeply moving.
GB So is the beauty a visceral thing or more related to knowing the science behind it?
TM If you think about what you know about it; there’s this comet that goes around the sun and when it does, it melts, and when it melts, it leaves these rocks behind that create a kind of debris field. You wonder, why does it come back at the same time of year? The earth happens to be going through that degree field. That’s the scientific part. And that has nothing to do with the beauty of it. It doesn’t exactly detract from it, but it certainly doesn’t add to it. There are two parts of the experience. One is just the sky, which is always there, but if you live in a city, you don’t experience the depth and the amazing attractiveness and mystery about a sky full of stars. And then you get these unpredictable streaks of light. You don’t know when or where the next will be so you’re on the edge of your seat, always scanning everywhere, so there’s something active about it. It’s hard to tear yourself away.
The curious thing about it when you reflect on it, is these are random streaks of light, there is no pattern to it. There’s no point to it. It’s not designed. You can take a couple of steps back and wonder why should this night sky look so beautiful to us? There are always these evolutionary stories about certain things, that the human body, you could be cuing off signs for fertility or signs for health. A nice red apple looks healthy for you. There’s a reason why evolution would make that attractive to you. But we don’t interact with the sky, and especially with the stars and with the planets. The Sun is important to us, in our everyday lives, but the rest of it isn’t. People have completely lost any contact in their day to day lives with the stars, but we find it so immersive and so beautiful; stunningly, sublimely beautiful. Yet it has no purpose. That attraction has no advantage to us. There’s something that taps into a human sense of awe in a very pure way. It sets off a chain of reflections. Look at how much intellectual effort went into trying to figure out where the planets would be. We developed a huge chunk of geometry and mathematics trying to track all that and not for any obvious reason.
TM Do you find that disappointing in a way?
TM There’s this comment of Steven Weinberg, that the more we understand the universe, the more pointless it seems. He’s just correct. You can’t look in a lot of detail at the Hubble and so on and say there are the marks of design there. There’s a tremendous amount of randomness, a lack of patterns. But it’s nonetheless amazingly beautiful, just the distribution of the stars in the sky. Of course, in trying to find the constellations, you do get this sense of humans trying to project more structure onto it than is there and again, this sense of this desire to see something in it. I can do without that, it’s just tremendously beautiful.
GB I’ve got to ask you about beauty and physics. I’ve found that mathematicians believe beauty can be leading them towards the right solution. Do you think that, for physics, beauty is at all useful, or has it led people to make mistakes?
TM That’s a big question and there’s no single blanket answer to it. You need to separate two different points. One is a sense of beauty in pure math; this is a beautiful proof, or this connection between these two realms of mathematics that seemed entirely unconnected is very beautiful. That has to do with some sense of getting deep insight into the mathematics itself. In the case of physics, in mathematical physics, you use math to represent the physical world. There’s a sense and I think a correct one, which is often expressed in terms of beauty, that ultimately, the laws of physics should have a very simple, compelling statement, mathematically. Part of that is finding the right physics and part of it is finding the right mathematics. You’re working on both sides It’s something you can’t prove, or you won’t know it until you have a final theory, but it’s certainly served us well, to try to simplify the physics mathematically. There are parts that come up in modern physics, where people are looking for other kinds of symmetries or beauties that may have led us astray. I think it’s an open question and one you need to ask, whether in some cases, you’re asking for more than there ought to be there. The whole world can’t be ruled by perfect symmetry because it’s not a perfectly symmetric world. There are going to be bits in it that do look kind of random, and you shouldn’t bust your head over it too much. But on the other hand, you know, sometimes you look deeper, and you can find an explanation for something. So that’s a very tricky question. And I think it’s good that you have both people very committed to working trying to find something deeper, and people who are skeptical about it because it could go either way.
GB String theory doesn’t seem too beautiful now.
TM String theory is historically a complete anomaly. The mathematics was developed initially thinking it would solve one problem, which then got solved in an entirely different way. Then people decided that it’s interesting mathematics, let’s repurpose it over here for a grand theory of everything. That didn’t seem to work out either, but many of the string theorists remain confident that this math must be good for something.
GB Do you think that the natural world is always going to be more beautiful than something manmade?
TM No. In a way, manmade things have the advantage that somebody’s sitting there trying to trigger your endorphins or whatever, so of course, many manmade things are tremendously beautiful. There’s this lovely painting by Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance. If you study that painting, you see that it’s literally a balanced painting. All of that was quite intentional. My own aesthetic reaction is probably strongest with music. I listen to music and I think it’s just incredible. It’s because there’s a mind behind it who is doing something. But that’s why the natural beauty is so intriguing. It’s there, even though it wasn’t designed. Others will say we were designed to react to it through evolution but then you get these cases that makes us think that that’s not the story either. I was in Abu Dhabi, the Empty Quarter and, man, it’s spectacular to be among those sand dunes. But you think evolution would have told you get away. Evolution should have made you think it was tremendously unappealing and ugly because it’s a hostile landscape. But nonetheless, you find it beautiful. That’s why to me, the night sky is so interesting, because you just can’t have that kind of explanation. There’s no safety in it. There’s no danger in it. There’s no prospects in it. It’s there and it’s just astoundingly beautiful. Why do we have that reaction to it? It can’t have this kind of reductive explanation.
GB I guess that’s pushed a lot of people into believing in something spiritual, looking at that kind of beauty.
TM Kant talked about the starry heavens, the moral law within and the starry sky above. I’m sure people have been inspired by that feeling of sublimity. But that doesn’t explain where the feeling of sublimity came from. That’s the downstream part of it.
GB Why do you think we want to know so much about how everything works and why we’re here?
TM I think we’re just nosy. The thing about human beings which is in your face all the time, but people don’t seem to notice it, is that we’re a very, very, strange kind of creature, because a level of intelligence of a certain kind became extremely valuable to us. Dinosaurs were around for millions of years, none of them got that smart. Roaches have been around much longer than we have yet there has not been an impetus to make cockroaches ever smarter. With humans, for some reason, a very small difference in intelligence was so important that we grew heads so big they could kill the mothers giving birth. We’re born years prematurely. A puppy is up and walking around in five minutes. It takes us years because we’re essentially extremely premature. What is it about humans that gave this kind of intelligence, such a tremendous premium and it didn’t for any other creature in the history of billions of species? There are two obvious things that people would talk about. One is the development of language, and the other is our hands, because we get these wonderful, opposable thumbs so we can manipulate things. The ability to control that manipulation becomes extremely important. It seems to me that, that this process of increasing intelligence and the ability to process complexity has all kinds of side effects that it’s not designed for but come out of it. Some of this aesthetic sense seems to be part of that.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?
TM Part of it is that it absorbs your attention, but people’s attention is absorbed by a car crash, so there’s some other sense, some other emotion it’s appealing to. Clearly beauty has to do with something that you find uplifting.