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Truth or Beauty: Science and the Quest for Order

by David Orrell

Due to the nature of science itself, scientific truth is always provisional. And beauty, so the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. Given these shifting sands, physicist David Orrell has taken on a tricky subject in his treatise on how aesthetic paradigms have influenced the history and development of science.

In Orrell’s conception, aesthetics describe not just the philosophy of beauty, but any mode of perception motivated by a set of values. He illustrates how one particular aesthetic – characterized by “masculine,” “right-handed” properties such as elegance, harmony, symmetry, integrity, unity, and order – has dominated scientific thinking since the days of Pythagoras, leading to a misconception of the essential nature of the universe. In opposition to this reductionist view, Orrell proposes a “complexity approach,” which involves shifting from a mechanical paradigm to a natural, organic one that values the whole over the parts, context over abstraction, possibility over predictability.

Orrell casts a wide net, both in terms of historical scope and the range of disciplines covered, moving from math and physics to economics and sociology. While such a broad approach may appeal to the general reader, it has the effect of blurring the book’s focus somewhat. Orrell provides a general history of major developments in science that aren’t always strictly on topic. It is only in the book’s final sections that the author addresses his main point, which is that the historically dominant mechanical aesthetic in science is showing itself to be less reliable, and indeed less grounded in the reality of our modern age (his major targets in this respect are string theory and deterministic economic modelling).

Orrell presents a fascinating and mostly coherent account of recent developments in science, though the paradigm shift he proposes may be less radical than it seems. A complexity aesthetic may just be the next step in the natural evolution in scientific thinking, a course adjustment made in order to deal with new fields of scientific inquiry and new evidence provided by emerging technologies. Furthermore, whether a delight in disorder, impermanence, and imperfection will provide us with concepts as productive and “true” as the mechanical models of the past is a question that has yet to be answered.

If it does, we may look back upon Truth or Beauty as an important manifesto for our age. But even if it doesn’t, Orrell has provided an intriguing way of thinking about how we got here.