Graham Farmelo in The Guardian:
Leading scientists often talk about science in ways that are patently unscientific. In his new book, the Nobel prizewinning American theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek asks: “Is the world a work of art?” Such a question is surely impossible to consider in scientific terms, using only statements that could be proved to be wrong. Any answer to the question is certain to be merely a matter of opinion. Compared with other branches of science, theoretical physics has produced more than its share of scientific aesthetes, including Albert Einstein and Paul Dirac, who both had the rare experience of producing theories commonly described as beautiful, akin to great works of art. Perhaps it was partly for this reason that these two great scientists took as their lodestar the ill-defined concept of beauty. For Dirac, mathematical beauty was “almost a religion”. I doubt whether Wilczek would go that far, but he is deeply enamoured of the symmetries and harmonies at the heart of nature. A Beautiful Question is the most recent of the books he has written on this theme and in my view it is his best, most likely to appeal to readers who have plenty of curiosity but little or no knowledge of mathematics. (Full disclosure: he contributed to the collection of essays It Must be Beautiful that I edited over a decade ago.)
Wilczek begins with what he calls “a meditation” in ancient Greece. He especially admires Plato, who took a geometric approach to understanding matter and the universe. Although many of these ideas can now look strange to modern eyes, they also appear to be profound, influential and far-sighted. As Wilczek points out, modern theories of the most basic constituents of matter and their most fundamental interactions “are rooted in heightened of symmetry that would surely make Plato smile”. But it is in the sections of the book dealing with modern theories that Wilczek is at his most illuminating. He describes how Einstein brought “a new style into thinking about nature’s fundamental principles” using “beauty, in the form of symmetry”. Almost a century ago, this led him – after an eight-year struggle – to a new understanding of gravity, in terms of the curvature of space-time, in his monumental general theory of relativity.