NBA History of Science Seminar

Henrik Zinkernagel, "Aesthetics and the limits of quantum physics."

Henrik Zinkernagel

Henrik Zinkernagel, University of Granada, guest researcher at the Niels Bohr Archive.

Physicists have often emphasized the beauty of theories and explanations. Such beauty is typically expressed in terms of simplicity and symmetry in the equations of the theory in question. But there is more to aesthetics in physics than beauty. Thus, a broader conception of aesthetics includes, for instance, the joy of insight and the notion of the sublime (related to awe, wonder and what may be beyond scientific understanding).

This talk is about the role of aesthetics in the historical development of quantum mechanics and its philosophical interpretation. I will discuss how aesthetic considerations – e.g., regarding mathematical beauty, visualization of the phenomena and the limitations of the new theory – played an important role for the  quantum physics pioneers. Particular attention will be given to the case of Niels Bohr. For instance, Bohr held that there is a limit to how far the measurement process in quantum mechanics can be analyzed in causal and spatio-temporal terms, and he hinted that limitations like this are associated with aesthetic value.

Towards the end of the talk, I will briefly discuss how an increased awareness of the aesthetic aspects of physics might influence the teaching and public understanding of science.