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Mathematician David Orrell.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Scientists hunting for the Higgs boson particle said recently that their latest results are "beautiful," continuing a line of talk that seems calculated to make the elusive "God particle" sound almost like the winner of a subatomic beauty pageant. "It makes you cry, how beautiful it is," said Eilam Gross, a scientist at the $9-billion Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, when preliminary evidence of the particle's existence was announced last summer. Gross laughed on camera as he talked about crying, maybe because particle physicists aren't supposed to tear up over their research results.

But they do like to talk about beauty, a lot, at least when mass media are listening., a gathering point for celebrity scientists and public intellectuals, spent the whole of 2012 mulling over a question proposed by Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker: "What is your favourite elegant, deep or beautiful explanation?" The 194 submissions, which included quantum theory and Einstein's explanation of gravity, were recently published by Harper Perennial under the title This Explains Everything.

Scientists have mused on beauty at least since Pythagoras proposed that the heavens conform to the same orderly proportions as musical sounds. But some kinds of science have in recent times presented a public face that seems to be turned toward beauty 24/7. Beauty talk abounds in popular books and TV programs about the cosmos, such as Brian Greene's bestseller The Elegant Universe and the PBS Nova series based on it. It seems that the more theoretical and expensive the science, the more they talk about beauty.

David Orrell, an applied mathematician living in Toronto, recently called shenanigans on this state of affairs, in a book called Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order (Oxford University Press). The book traces a single aesthetic orientation – basically, the Pythagorean ideal of order, simplicity and symmetry – as it works its way through Western science. It's a story full of happy endings, but Orrell thinks that science's beauty fixation may also produce a pleasantly scented smokescreen.

"The whole idea of beauty is part of the mystique and the PR of science," Orrell said in an interview. "Someone can say that their theory is beautiful, and it's very difficult to call them on it." That may be especially true, he said, of string theory, a very elegant but so far unproven contender for one-stop explanation of the universe. We may have been "led astray by the search for a particular type of beauty," Orrell writes, adding that the LHC may prove to be just a "highly expensive art installation."

The short answer to that charge is that anyone who has really gone astray looking for scientific beauty has seen their work land in the dustbin. Nineteenth-century theories about "the ether" looked like elegant explanations for electromagnetism and gravity, till Einstein came along.

Physicist Robert Millikan definitely went a bit overboard for beauty and instinctive truth a century ago, quietly suppressing experimental results that didn't agree with what he felt should be the right answer. But his value for the electrical charge of an electron turned out to be more or less correct, and won him a Nobel Prize.

"If one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations," wrote another Nobel winner, quantum physicist Paul Dirac, "and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress." Dirac is a somewhat sinister figure in Orrell's survey, but the Millikan example proves that without the key element of "sound insight," getting beauty in one's equations is worthless.

"We like elegance because it's utilitarian," says Amanda Peet, a physicist working in string theory at the University of Toronto. "An elegant solution to a problem will often end up being fast and useful. But that's not the primary thing that drives us. We want to explain what we see in nature, and the way these things get settled is by doing the science. That's how you see who turns out to be right."

There have been periods when scientists were as keen on deviations and marvels as they were on orderly beauties. According to science historian Lorraine Daston, major 17th-century scientists such as Galileo and Robert Boyle were mad for news of freaks and marvels. Science deflected toward an aesthetics of the grotesque, Daston writes in her paper "The Language of Strange Facts in Early Modern Science," because it needed to establish the integrity of unexplained facts. Aristotelian science, she says, was mainly about rustling up evidence to support a rational hypothesis.

A much more profound incursion by the grotesque occurred with the arrival of Einstein's relativity and quantum theory. The orderly universe, which Descartes had said displayed the "constant and immutable" actions of God, became uncertain and full of paradox. Einstein was convinced of the rightness of his major theories, even before they could be proven, but rejected the inelegant idea that God, as he complained, "plays dice" with the cosmos.

String theory is supposed to smooth out the wrinkles into one seamless, beautiful explanation – or so we're told by some of the theory's salesmen. But Peet says that much actual work in the field is more nuts-and-bolts than that, and overlaps with work by non-string physicists.

"There are a lot of good physics reasons why people study string theory," she says, referring to specific problems of elementary particle physics, black holes and more. "It's like any other theory in physics. It's not a religious belief, it's a set of tools in a tool box, and it's a pretty big toolbox."

Still, Orrell thinks maybe it's time to consider "a shift in aesthetics, from order and symmetry to something more complex, organic and messy" – like the chaos underlying a weather system, or what MIT physicist Xiao-Gang Wen calls the "arbitrary and ugly" movements of boson particles as they form into organized entities. Inside the elegant universe, perhaps, is something messy, struggling to make itself understood.

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