Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Aesthetics and science are distinct

Some scientists have been talking about the old fallacy of physicists that the most simple, most elegant solution must be the correct one. Simple, sometimes as in Occam's razor, is an objective assessment and may be appropriate, but elegant, which is a subjective assessment, is not.

Some aesthetic supporters include Mario Livio of Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute in his 2000 book, "The Accelerating Universe : Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos" who synthesizes the views of a variety of pro-aesthetics scientists and more recently, well-known game-designer Will Wright at a June 2006 talk hosted by the San Francisco Long Now Foundation. Other long supporters of aesthetics continue to populate mathematics and physics.

Pandering to aesthetics is a surprising and disappointing departure for scientists from their more usual rational stance. Whether a solution is aesthetic or not is irrelevant to its main property of being able to solve a problem. In fact, aesthetic value is normally accorded to a scientific solution once the solution's accuracy is established, and is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Aeron chair, as Malcolm Gladwell reminds in his 2005 book "Blink," was ugly until it became an Internet entrepreneur status symbol.

Evaluating scientific solutions in terms of aesthetics is just another indication of how necessary new conceptual paradigms are for many areas of science where new ways to frame the problems could be an important step forward to discoveries, particularly in particle physics, cosmology and artificial intelligence.