A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…
You can imagine that this might well be the way to address the beloved; perhaps changing “thing” to “person” or “girl” or “boy”. There is that about beauty which inspires love, and there is that about love which lights beauty in the eye of the lover.
Yet religious experience is so often like the encounter with a lover or beloved. We could imagine a religious ecstasy: “God, Your beauty is a joy forever, Your loveliness increases.” Art and religious practice, worship, have been bound together in most religions. In Islam where the shape of a created being cannot be used in worship, art nevertheless flourishes in the beautiful script of Arabic, and in the geometrical curves and flourishes and the multiplied pavings of squares, circles, and other shapes.
Throughout the Christian Church art is in some way related to worship and holy living. Even in the most austere forms of religion, such as the Shakers, beautiful music and wonderful dancing are found, and in their life style beautiful carpentry and the fine workmanship of useful objects.
But how could beauty apply to science? Science might well point out to us that “things” of beauty, and indeed lovers, do not last for ever, and often their loveliness decreases. Yet in science itself there are standards which uphold beauty, which require beauty as a confirmation of the truth. Einstein would turn away from some formulations, and say : “they are ugly.”
One of the great principles in physics which is upheld by particle physics is symmetry. For example, when there are mysterious sources and energy and mass in the universe which cannot otherwise be accounted for, the scientists require that Dark Energy and Dark Matter balance the too small percentage of visible energy and matter which can be accounted for.
Heinz R Pagels, late husband of the great feminist writer, Elaine Pagels, in writing a book on the search for the beginning of time, titled it “Perfect Symmetry.” Perhaps Pagels was thinking of Blake’s poem on the tiger and the Creator, beginning, famously:
“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
what immortal hand or eye,
dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
And by the laws of thermodynamics, energy(=matter) can neither be destroyed nor created: like a thing of beauty “it will never pass into nothingness…”
However, a great deal of physics seems to tell us of particles springing out of nothingness, antiparticles destroying one another, the breaking of symmetry being the source of “time’s arrow”. While one branch of physics will say that there are eternal realities, others will say they all pass away. Just like theology, there are differing points of view. Perhaps many extremes are found in meaningful art.
As human beings we experience unity and diversity, creativity and decay, life and death. Let us explore these realities as scientists, as artists, and as worshippers.