Friday, March 23, 2007


Anne, my sis who graces this site with her Sunday art, sent me the image above, which she found on the New Scientist web site. She offered it without comment, except to call it a mandala, the geometric figures used by Buddhists and Hindus to represent the symmetry and completeness of the universe. She is enchanted, I assume, that explorations of higher mathematics would yield so lovely a design.

I know next to nothing about Lie groups (the mathematical entities behind the diagram), but mathematicians, scientists and artists can agree with Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

In his book, "Hunting for Hope," my friend Scott Russell Sanders offers the experience of beauty as one reason why we can be hopeful in a world fraught with human tragedy and environmental cataclysm. He begins his chapter on beauty with an account of his daughter's wedding -- the beauty of the church, the dresses, the music, and, especially, of his daughter Eva.

Then he wanders into science. He talks about the sort of beauty implicit in the equations of physicists, which they trace back to the symmetrical energy of the Big Bang.

He writes: "Without being able to check their equations, I think the physicists are right. I believe the energy they speak of is holy, by which I mean it is the closest we can come with our instruments to measuring the strength of God. I also believe this primal energy continues to feed us, directly through the goods of Creation, and indirectly through the experience of beauty."

The call of an owl, a photograph of a galaxy, the smile of his daughter through her wedding veil: In these experiences Sanders senses a harmony between himself and the thing he beholds, a sympathy between inside and outside. The name for this resonance, he says, is -- quite simply -- beauty.

Sanders is a humanist -- he teaches in the English Department at Indiana University -- but his understanding of beauty is not unlike that of the physicist. Beauty gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things, he says: "The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a gown resemble one another not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe."

The grain of the universe! What a felicitous phrase. This is what Newton, Darwin and Einstein beheld when they found simple and elegant ways to express complex realities. And what my sister Anne is right to see in the "mandala" of the mathematicians.

Beauty is a resonance of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world, nature's signature of truth. "Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."