Partially Examined Life
I subscribe to a number of thick writing journals filled with short stories, essays, and poetry. I am generally behind in reading them, though once I sit down and do so I never regret it. Tin House‘s recent 50th anniversary issue devoted to “Beauty” falls in this category and is apropos of Wes’ recent comments on philosophers and science envy.
Two of the essays reflect on the question of beauty and explicitly invoke science in the discussion — Marilynne Robinson’s “On ‘Beauty’” and Michael Harris’ “Unexpected, Economical, Inevitable: How Math and Beauty Add Up”. Robinson’s essay concerns the disappearance of beauty and the importance of narrative. She brings in logical positivism, intelligent design, religion, Neitzsche, Freud, Sophocles, and King Lear along the way and includes a sustained reflection on beauty and science. Here’s a small excerpt:
There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be because this is the age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists have a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure.
There is really much more I should quote, but I’ll leave it to you to read.
Michael Harris writes about one of my favorite books, G.H. Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s Apology. (We should actually read the book for PEL.) G.H. Hardy was a pre-eminent number theorist in the early 20th century. The book is a short, beautiful read reflecting on his life as a mathematician and the beauty of mathematics.