Friday, December 23, 2016

Frank Wilczek's Beautiful Design

I was going to write about Indra's Net today, but something else has intervened... I finished Frank Wilczek's Beautiful Design, and I just had to write something about it here. I had mentioned the book in my first post, and it just kept getting better and better... so now that the book has come to an end today, I'm tempted to read it over again from the start, which is the highest compliment I can pay to any book.

And its connection to alchemy is hinted at in the title; Wilczek's project is about the beauty in modern physics, and he's not kidding: beauty matters in his way of doing science. I'll admit to being a physics junkie, and I read a lot of physics books, but this book is like none of the others that I've read before. Because it is... beautiful. Just read the opening paragraphs of the book:
This book is a long meditation on a single question: Does the world embody beautiful ideas? 
Our Question may seem like a strange thing to ask. Ideas are one thing, physical bodies are quite another. What does it mean to “embody” an “idea”? Embodying ideas is what artists do. Starting from visionary conceptions, artists produce physical objects (or quasi-physical products, like musical scores that unfold into sound). 
Our Beautiful Question, then, is close to this one: Is the world a work of art? 
Posed this way, our Question leads us to others. If it makes sense to consider the world as a work of art, is it a successful work of art? Is the physical world, considered as a work of art, beautiful? For knowledge of the physical world we call on the work of scientists, but to do justice to our questions we must also bring in the insights and contributions of sympathetic artists.
Which matches up very nicely with the graphic Kevin shared at Twitter:
The alchemical treatises are not
merely texts to be read; they are
emblematic productions of image,
sign, word, and symbol, with
potent allure. -- Johanna Drucker

And you can read more from Drucker in this article she wrote for the LARB that Kathleen Crowther shared (a wonderful person in OU's History of Science department): Allegorical Knowledge: The Art of Alchemy.

Plus, now I am realizing that alchemy is going to be an excuse to take a romp through my much beloved emblem books of the seventeenth century, looking at them through an alchemical lens.

Much fun to come in 2017.........!

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