Too Beautiful to be Untrue: The Role of Aesthetics in Science and Theology -- An Audio Presentation by Dr. Jon Robertson

Introduction by Derrick Peterson

Quieted by anticipation, the only sound ticking over the room was a staccato of chalk striking blackboard. A room full of eyes fixated upon the writer through pipe smoke and tweedy suits. Nature herself was apparently eager to witness this demonstration, as the winter air pressed through iron grilles and thin glass, filling the moments between chalk-tics with an almost frozen stillness.  Angular, rune-like things scrawled and scratched into white-stark life on the board's open black face, line after line. There were few alive who could read the mathematics that was undoubtedly, to its author, a poem; as it went, most were now present in the room.

After a short while, the ticking stopped, and the lattice of heavenly things hung there now for all to see.  Rustling his mustache, a typically unkempt Einstein--whose hair sprung like a cloud over his own tweed suit--took a step back to look at his creation.  It was about a decade now, after what was later called his "year of miracles" in 1905, in which he had written and published five epoch-making papers on physics. He was currently in Gottingen among friends and fellow physicists, having just completed his theory of general relativity.  

But there was a problem, and a question just asked by a colleague seemed to bite through the brimming excitement like the November cold.  As beautiful as these rune-like things were, whatever their glory--can they be true?  Did they scratch into the fabric of reality as well as the midnight of the black board?  The mathematics were sound, yes, but empirical evidence and experiment were lagging behind.  Yet Einstein was unperturbed.  So beautiful to him was this poem of the heavenly spheres, the lithe symbols flowing to and fro on the board may as well have been a chorus of angels cantillating revelations to which not even Moses was privy.

He looked thoughtful for a moment at the question, then somewhat stern.  What would happen if such a beautiful theory were false?

"I would feel sorry for the Good Lord," said Einstein, finally.  Though its hierophanic language escapes most of us, to those who understood it, such an equation was too beautiful to be untrue.

Luckily the Lord had other plans.  Soon after arriving at Cambridge, another physicist named Arthur Stanley Eddington (previously a secretary at the Royal Astronomical Society) received Einstein's 1915 paper on relativity.  As it happened, this itself was no small feat, for to reach Eddington's hands it had to be smuggled across Berlin through the entrenched battlefronts of World War One.  In these papers Einstein's math predicted that space curved by gravity would bend incoming light.  Eddington sought to prove this by observation.  As Larry Witham remarks, "this made him the Indiana Jones of physics."

In 1919, Eddington became a visage of Harrison Ford's later character, decked head to foot in typical British safari gear as he led an expedition of assistants to Principe, West Africa.  There he and his team would observe in the wilderness a solar eclipse, allowing them to view the trajectories of passing starlight.  The moment came; the light, bent.  Einstein's poem was indeed a tune the universe sang, and good thing too: as the rumors of violent storms increased and the stakes rose, one of the assistants asked a senior scientist regarding the consequences of failure in Principe.  "Then Eddington will go mad," remarked his colleague dryly, "and we will have to come home."

The point is not just that this is a stirring tale of science--it is that Einstein felt his theory was right because it was beautiful.  While many aesthetics lie ruined in the course of history, their pieces are replaced, not with hard facts simply understood--but by other aesthetics.  Science and theology are alike in this respect: they both sense that the universe is deeply beautiful, and adjudge their theories accordingly.  Recently Dr. Jon Robertson (Ph.D. Oxford University), author of Christ as Mediator, delivered a wonderful talk on just such a theme--this time in relation to the equally intriguing tale of Copernicus and his work proving the earth went around the sun.  We hope you listen to it, because it is a topic of the utmost importance.

Photo Credit: "Firewall" by Darkday