Beauty and Truth

Thursday, 13 March 2014
I recently read an article in Nature where they find that mathematicians react to what they think as beautiful equations in the same way somebody reacts to visual and musical beauty. It seems that the same region of the brain that is correlated to emotional responses to different kinds of beauty reacts when they see a specially beautiful equation. 

In particular, it seems that the famous Euler's formula is the most beautiful one. It relates the most important numbers in maths, that is, e, i, π, 1 and 0. The simplicity of it, and the whole meaning of this relationship is processed by the trained mind as beautiful. 

Long time ago I read the book "Why Beauty Is Truth: The History of Symmetry". In it, they explain why the sense of beauty (related very often to symmetry), drives mathematicians to find new algorithms and models. 

Maths is thought of as arid for most of the people. But, when you understand the rules, the logic of it, how one thing leads naturally to another, when you are trained in maths, you can experience it as a kind of art. 

Not surprisingly Srinivasa Ramanujan's infinite series for 1/π was found the ugliest. 

I don't find it specially beautiful either. But think about Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician that had no formal training, but an exceptional intuition for numbers. Beauty is somehow correlated not only to the individual components, but to the relationship between them in a piece of art. I guess in the mind of Ramanujan this formula correlated so many different parts of his knowledge that he probably found it very beautiful. 

I think everybody can relate to musical or visual beauty to some extent, but I guess also the trained artists or musicians experience this kind of beauty differently to the rest of the people. I remember I went once to an exhibition of the work by Paul Klee. A friend of mine explained to me a few things, and my whole experience changed, because I understood some things better. 

I think beauty is not only about emotion, but goes somewhere deeper as our understanding increases. As Tagore, another Indian said: "When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as truth, we feel it as beauty". When we correlate to a stimulus as beautiful, we feel it as truth. For a mathematician, when they see truth in an equation, they experience it as beautiful. 

I think Plato would be very pleased with Zeki and collaborators' findings.

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