Truth Is Recognized By Its Beauty

‘A beautiful idea,’ said Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose, ‘has a much greater chance of being a correct idea than an ugly one.’

‘Fibonacci Stained Glass’
‘Fibonacci Stained Glass’ (photo: James Kirkikis / Shutterstock)

When poets and physicists agree on something, there is a good chance that they share a significant insight.

As a part of our Great Books discussions for the Angelicum High School Academy, we read poetry together. A couple of poems that came to my attention last year link truth with beauty.

The first poem is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, which ends with these lines:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

When I read these lines I was shocked, pleased and affirmed. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Of course it is. My initial training in this truth came not from poetry, though, but from physics. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was beauty that initially attracted me to physics. Having gotten a BS in physics and then teaching, I read books by physicists and about physics. It is commonplace for physicists to baldly claim that beautiful theories are the ones that are true. Therefore, I was pleased and affirmed in something I already knew to be true.

The reason it was shocking is that I had not encountered the idea so plainly stated outside of physics. Not only was it stated outside of physics, but in a poem which, by many respects, has nothing to do with physics at all.

When there are physicists and poets who agree on a principle like that, there is probably something to what they are saying.

Hear the witness of the physicists.

  • Paul Dirac, an important physicist of the 20th century, made the shocking claim that, “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”
  • Richard Feynman, another influential 20th-century physicist, wrote, “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.”
  • Mathematician and theoretical physicist Roger Penrose wrote, “Aesthetic criteria are enormously valuable in forming our judgements. … A beautiful idea has a much greater chance of being a correct idea than an ugly one.” 

Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann had a theory which they thought was true based on its beauty even though it was contradicted by more than one experiment. It turned out there was something wrong with the experiments and their theory was true. Gell-Mann commented:

The theory of weak interactions: there were nine experiments that contradicted it — all of them wrong. Every one. When you have something simple that agrees with all the rest of physics and really seems to explain what’s going on, a few experimental data against it are no objection whatever. Almost certain to be wrong.

(This quote and others can be found in The New Story of Science by Augros and Stanciu.)

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” So says John Keats through the Grecian Urn. The physicists would agree!

In discussing this poem, an Emily Dickinson poem was cited: “I Died for Beauty.” In this poem, one who died for beauty, having just been buried, finds someone who died for truth being buried “in an adjoining room.” When they each discover what the other died for, one declares that truth and beauty are the same and so they are brethren. Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

Even in the realm of mathematics, the great mathematician Henri Poincare wrote, “Without a rather high degree of this aesthetic instinct no man will ever be a great mathematical discoverer.” (I found that quote, by the way, in a fascinating little book called The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, by mathematician and psychologist Jacques Hadamard.) Math, indeed, has a pristine beauty all its own. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”

It is important to note that the kind of beauty invoked by the physicists (and the poets and mathematicians) is not merely what happens to please them according to taste. They are appealing to something objective and universal, something that transcends taste and is certainly not merely in the eye of the beholder. The primary characteristic of beauty is simplicity, also called wholeness or unity. In the cases of things with parts, there must be harmony or balance. Indeed, the right relationship among the parts contributes to the wholeness of the thing. Lastly, brilliance or radiance is the third characteristic. Beautiful things are illuminating, allowing for insight, intellectually attractive. 

So what does beauty have to do with truth? A beautiful thing is true to what it is. A true man is one who is wholly integrated. A true home lives up to what a home ought to be. Things that are true live up to the ideal. When things are most fully themselves, they are harmonious and unified. That is why nothing on Earth is more beautiful than a saint.

And this is never more true when it comes to God, who is completely one, simple, undivided, and Beauty and Truth Itself. In God’s case, it is not only true that beauty is truth, but that Beauty is Truth. From the poets to the scientists, this insightful and beautiful truth is proclaimed.