The beauty of the physical world

Graham Farmelo, author and former particle physicist, visited CERN on 25 March. To the CERNois gathered in the Main Auditorium, he talked about his new book The Strangest Man, a biography of Paul Dirac. Dirac was obsessed by the importance of mathematical beauty in fundamental physics, a belief that was “almost a religion” to him. Farmelo himself has no doubts: among all of the natural phenomena the LHC may unveil, supersymmetry is the most beautiful.


Talking about the life of a physicist to draw the attention of the public to the science: that was the idea behind Graham Farmelo decision to write a biography of Paul Dirac. The book won the 2009 Costa Biography Award. “I chose Paul Dirac because he was the first truly modern theoretical physicist but he is virtually unknown to the public”, explains Graham Farmelo. “Dirac had a fascinating life. He was not born in a wealthy or a particularly brilliant family but he ended up conceiving in his head antimatter, that is, half of the Universe just after the Big Bang.”

The book is not just about the science, it’s about Dirac’s life. “Writing about physics is more challenging than writing about, for instance, evolutionary biology which you can describe with very little mathematics”, Farmelo says. “In physics, we have to work harder to show the human interest and we have to get things over without the mathematical complexities.”

One of the main personal interests of Dirac was the application of beautiful mathematics to the physical world. The beauty of the Universe we live in, and the fact that Nature can be described by beautiful mathematical laws, fascinated the great scientists and Graham Farmelo also. “Human beings are moved by ‘beauty’. You feel that mathematical beauty has a kind of universality, something that can be shared by everyone, independent of their culture. In the same way, if you take a law of nature, which is very concise and does not have lots of ends and bits hanging off it but still applies to the whole universe, then you feel its beauty! And this is what modern theories are: they explain more and more in terms of fewer and fewer principles. For Dirac beauty was like a religion: he believed that a theory could not be right unless it was based on beautiful mathematics.”

So, what will be the most beautiful discovery that the LHC will bring us? “Supersymmetry would be very beautiful”, he replies. “It would be another fundamental symmetry of Nature. It is very beautiful mathematically. It is too beautiful to be wrong.”

by CERN Bulletin