Truth or Beauty


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Science and the Quest for Order

David Orrell

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In this sweeping book, applied mathematician and popular author David Orrell questions the promises and pitfalls of associating beauty with truth, showing how ideas of mathematical elegance have inspired—and have sometimes misled—scientists attempting to understand nature.

Orrell shows how the ancient Greeks constructed a concept of the world based on musical harmony; later thinkers replaced this model with a program, based on Newton’s “rational mechanics,” to reduce the universe to a few simple equations. He then turns to current physical theories, such as supersymmetric string theory—again influenced by deep aesthetic principles. The book sheds new light on historical investigations and also recent research, including the examinations ongoing at the Large Hadron Collider. Finally, broadening his discussion to other fields of research, including economics, architecture, and health, Orrell questions whether these aesthetic principles reflect an accurate way to explain and understand the structure of our world.

David Orrell is an applied mathematician and popular author. In early 2012, he completed an honorary visiting research fellowship at the Oxford University Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

"Orrell swings from the ancient preoccupation with musical harmony and numerical ratios to Renaissance nature studies, the mechanistic approach and the physical sciences of today. Imperfect as it is, ‘messy’ science, he argues, has a novel beauty of its own."—Nature

"Fascinating . . . Orrell is an engaging and witty writer, adept at explaining often complicated theories in clear language . . . he argues persuasively that scientists need to let go of outmoded aesthetic notions and embrace complexity."--Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times

"Truth or Beauty gives a well-written, historically informed argument that science has gone off the rails....The question Orrell is addressing is an important and topical one."—Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law

"A graceful and insightful history of the Pythagorean impulse to model the world in mathematical terms. Orrell analyses Western scientific culture's quest for order and links it to an essentially religious conception of beauty."—Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras Trousers and Physics on the Fringe

“If science is the search for truth, we’d better understand what is this truth that we seek. As David Orrell pointedly argues in this well-written and accessible book, modern science runs the danger of being blinded by an overarching aesthetic prejudice—traceable back to Ancient Greece—that truth is necessarily wedded to beauty. Quite the opposite, the more we learn about the natural world, the more we are forced to accept a different kind of aesthetic based on the imperfect and the asymmetric, and no less beautiful for it.”—Marcelo Gleiser, author of A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Appleton Prof. of Natural Philosophy, Dartmouth College


"A lively and engaging work....The range of topics Orrell brings to bear is impressive, and I always wanted to keep turning the pages.”—Robert Smith, University of Alberta

Shortlisted for the Canadian Science Writers' Association Outstanding Adult Book Awards.
ISBN: 9780300186611
Publication Date: November 27, 2012
356 pages, 6 x 9
20 b/w illus.

Sales Restrictions: World excluding Canada