Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beauty bare

During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my growing family in paradise. To be more precise, in a flat in Prince's Gate Mews, off Exhibition Road in London. Backing up against our flat was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Across the road were the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Geology Museum. Who could ask for a more endlessly enriching dwelling place. For the kids, of course, but for papa too, who probably learned more in the museums that year than in all the rest of his education put together.

Many an hour I spent on the top floor of the Geology Museum browsing the cabinets of minerals from around the world, of every color of the rainbow and of dazzling crystalline forms. As I recall, that was also the year I first read mathematical-physicist Hermann Weyl's delightful little book Symmetry, which explores the relationship between symmetry and beauty, in art and science.

Weyl begins with a 4th-century B.C. bilaterally-symmetric Greek sculpture of a praying boy, but soon enough moves on to crystals, such as those in the Geology Museum that piqued my esthetic and scientific sense. A crystal is mathematically symmetric through and through. A piece of glass can be cut in the shape of a diamond, but the imposed external shape has nothing to do with the amorphous internal structure of the glass. A cut diamond's external facets reflect an inner beauty (as too, by the way, does the external beauty of the human model of the praying boy).

Which brings me to Tom's latest offering, the photograph at the top of this post (click to enlarge). These crystals look like those one finds inside a geode, but look at the human figure at lower-right; this is a "geode" the size of a football stadium, the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico. Why hadn't I heard of this before? Thanks, Tom.

In his book Symmetry, Hermann Weyl chases symmetrical beauty to its mathematical roots. The lucky visitor to the Cave of the Crystals -- or the top floor of the Geology Museum -- learns the lesson that we also heard from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare."