SPIEGEL: Professor Wilczek, Goethe once said one should hear a little music, read a little poetry and look at a beautiful picture every day so that worldly cares don’t obliterate one’s sense of beauty. Have you already had your daily bit of beauty today?
Wilczek: More than just a bit today. I’ve been reading books about art history and looking at pictures. I also have a very ambitious summer reading program. Today I read a science fiction book, “Starmaker” by Olaf Stapledon. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but it’s full of inspiring visions. Normally I also play the piano quite a bit, but our piano has gotten out of tune while we were abroad.
SPIEGEL: In your new book, “A Beautiful Question,” you write that physics also appeals to our sense of beauty. Does art inspire you when you’re studying the laws of nature?
Wilczek: It would be hard to say it is directly inspiring, but I’m convinced that art and science activate the same parts of the brain. The brain rewards us for interacting with beautiful things. In this way, evolution wants to encourage us to do what is good for us. This applies to many things of course, but one of them is the understanding of how things are going to behave.
SPIEGEL: We try to make sense of things …
Wilczek: … yes. And when we succeed, we perceive it as beauty.
SPIEGEL: What is “beautiful” about physics?
Wilczek: Don’t you find it compelling, for example, that the equations that have been developed to describe musical instruments are very nearly the same as the equations that govern how atoms work? In a violin or a piano, sounds are produced by the vibrations of sounding boards or strings. In atoms, the things that vibrate are more abstract: They are associated with the colors of light that a particular kind of atom likes to emit or absorb. And this, by the way, is very much the same idea that Pythagoras was groping towards when he associated the movement of the planets with music of the spheres. Electrons do in fact go around the atomic nucleus much the same as planets go around the sun. We can think of atoms as musical instruments that produce a very real and very perfect music of the spheres.
While we go on with our lives, beauty and artistic endeavor continue in the Universe.
It is up to us to look and perceive if we choose, most do not.