Beauty and sense making

Arrived at via 3QuarksDaily, the New York Times has a wonderful article (free registration required) on Albert Einstein's affinity for the music of Mozart. The article struck me for couple reasons.

On discovery:

Einstein believed... that beyond observations and theory lay the music of the spheres — which, he wrote, revealed a 'pre-established harmony' exhibiting stunning symmetries. The laws of nature, such as those of relativity theory, were waiting to be plucked out of the cosmos by someone with a sympathetic ear.

It reminded me of how Einstein is said to have visualized subatomic nature in Sparks of Genius, a fascinating book on the ways in which we "school the imagination:"

In a kind of thought experiment that could not be articulated, he pretended to be a photon moving at the speed of light, imagining what he saw and how he felt. Then he became a second photon and tried to imagine what he could experience from the first one. As Einstein explained to Max Wertheimer, a psychologist, he only vaguely understood where his visual and muscular thinking would take him. His 'feeling of direction,' he said, was 'very hard to express.'

The word 'beauty' is also used a lot in the Times article. We know that mathematical models, notably that of group theory, can describe symmetry, a quality of many, many things to which we as humans are drawn. Perhaps Einstein's attraction to the beauty of music was at some level the same as his attraction to physics. Both have an underlying rationality that escapes a frontal assault, but when approached with practiced imagination can be brought together in striking fashion.

And maybe -- who knows -- it signaled something more: he'd finally arrived at something really big and gotten it right.

Scientists often describe general relativity as the most beautiful theory ever formulated. Einstein himself always emphasized the theory's beauty. 'Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory,' he once said.

The theory is essentially one man's view of how the universe ought to be. And amazingly, the universe turned out to be pretty much as Einstein imagined....


Technorati tags: Einstein, relativity, Mozart, music, symmetry, group theory