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World-Changing Ideas

Why science needs imagination and beauty

How do the best scientists solve life’s greatest mysteries? A Nobel Prize winner takes you inside his mind and explains why the key is imaginative play.

Albert Einstein famously said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” They’re both important, says physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Frank Wilczek, but knowledge without imagination is barren. Take his subject of theoretical physics. As Wilczek says a lot of what you do is to try to understand Mother Nature’s mind and her sense of beauty to see how the laws of physics could be more beautiful.

Not many people truly appreciate what happened in physics in the last part of the 20th Century. We understood at a level whose profundity would be difficult to exaggerate what matter is. We really have the equations for the different fundamental building blocks of matter – the different particles have mathematical characterisations that are precise and elegant. They have no secrets, in principle we have the equations.

The bad news, however, is we are not so good at solving them. There are still gaps in fundamental understanding, we have very good equations or practical purposes, but they are kind of lop-sided; they are beautiful but not quite as beautiful as they should be given they are close to God’s last word in some sense. We’re trying to think of better ways to solve the equations, which takes a lot of imagination because they describe an unfamiliar world – it’s a very small world and things behave differently in it. The only way to get experience is to play around with the equations and imagine how they might behave in different circumstances, it’s more like imaginative play than anything else.

The laws we have discovered, especially in the quantum world are so strange you have to play with them in your mind. Usually what you envision is wrong, but its mind expanding and every once in a while you see something that may be right. Sometimes it even is right.

The questions we are now able to ask are so compelling, so extraordinary. What is most of the Universe made of? Are the laws of physics ultimately unified? What was the Big Bang like? You just say them and they have such grandeur. The more you learn about the equations, the more you learn about physics, the more you learn how beautiful it is. That’s the real value, it’s an ornament to the human mind.

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