Deep, True, Clear and Beautiful – What Motivates the Laureates?

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

What transforms a sophisticated scientific talk to an inspiring presentation suitable for an audience with diverse backgrounds and broad interests, like here at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum? In my opinion, and after having seen most of the lectures here, three factors contribute to capturing the audience:

  • Managing to integrate the own research into the historic context.
  • Pointing out concrete problems or applications related to the research presented.
  • Explaining the own motivation and answering why precisely this topic was chosen for research.
Beauty an curiosity is too superficial for Leonore Blum. Image: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA)
Beauty and curiosity. Rather superficial motivators for Leonore Blum. Image: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA)

I asked Leonore Blum, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, for key motivators which in her opinion are driving her and her peers. Her colleagues most often quote the intrinsic beauty of mathematics on one hand and to be driven by curiosity on the other, she replied.

What exactly does she mean with intrinsic beauty? It refers to clarity and simplicity, as the laureates Ivan Sutherland and Butler W. Lampson pointed out in their lectures on Thursday morning.

Michael Atiyah, Fields Medal winner from 1966, Abel Prize awardee from 2004, and also present here in Heidelberg, explains this concept of beauty in greater detail in the recently published book Art in the Life of Mathematicians, edited by Anna Kepes Szemerédi:

“The choice of a theory is a human choice; we prefer the theory which appeals to us best, the simplest or most beautiful […] The success of science seems to indicate that the beauty which we humans search for in mathematical theories does capture aspects of truth […].”

So, simplicity and clarity and maybe further, superordinate esthetic guiding ideas are contributing to the beauty of a theory. And they seem to be somehow related to truth.

Michael Atiyah explains the connection between beauty and truth. Image: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA).
Michael Atiyah explains the connection between beauty and truth. Image: Tobias Maier (CC BY-SA).

I asked Michael Atiyah to elucidate the suggested relation between beauty and truth further. His response here at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum added a philosophical dimension: “When in doubt between truth and beauty, go for beauty. Because you never know if something is actually true.”

I could only come up with a somewhat dissonant comparison to integrate beauty and intrinsic curiosity with science: If research is a journey, then beauty defines the travel route and curiosity is the fuel driving the scientist further.

Quite to the contrary, Leonore Blum was rather unhappy with both terms. In her opinion beauty and curiosity sound rather superficial and don’t reflect her own motivation. She is driven by a desire for deep understanding of the yet unknown.

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?

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Tobias Maier ist promovierter Molekularbiologe mit über zehn Jahren Forschungserfahrung an internationalen Instituten. Er ist Wissenschaftlicher Leiter am Nationalen Institut für Wissenschaftskommunikation (NaWik) in Karlsruhe. Seit 2008 schreibt Tobias das Blog WeiterGen auf den deutschen ScienceBlogs und twittert unter @WeiterGen. --- Tobias Maier is a science communication professional with a ten year track record in biomedical research. He’s the scientific head at the National Institute for Science Communication in Germany (NaWik). Tobias writes a blog on the German ScienceBlogs network and he’s on Twitter as @WeiterGen

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