Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called “beautiful” or “elegant.” Historical examples are Kepler’s explanation of planetary motions as simple ellipses, Niels Bohr’s explanation of the periodic table of elements in terms of the electron shells, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s explanation of genetic replication via the double helix. The great theoretical physicist P.A.M.Dirac famously said that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.”
The Edge Question 2012
What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?
The contributions presented here embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, – including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behaviour. The common thread is that a simple and non-obvious idea is proposed as the explanation for a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.