Sunday, February 01, 2009

Law and mystery

The great 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said, "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a law, and yet have a mystery to move about in."

Newton's Principia and Darwin's Origin have received their proper due from historians, two great books that helped make the modern world. Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, published in 1873, is a work of equal stature, mostly forgotten by popular culture. The book united in one beautiful mathematical theory everything that was known about electricity, magnetism -- and more. We live today in a sea of electromagnetic radiation that Maxwell anticipated.

I first came across the book as a young graduate student in physics, after having had enough courses in electricity and magnetism to appreciate its significance. Law? Oh, yes. All of electrical and magnetic science Maxwell reduces to four elegant equations. Then -- voila! -- out of those equations he spins a theory of light -- and, by extension, the complete electromagnetic spectrum.

The effect is stunning. Breathtaking. Gorgeous.

Why does the universe hang on so lovely an armature of mathematical design? No one knows. As I thumbed through Maxwell's book as a young man the sheer mystery of physics overwhelmed me. Against the spare beauty of those four equations the heavy brocade of religious dogma in which I was raised seemed cumbersome and artificial.

Law and mystery: The two pillars of scientific creativity -- and of life.