Writing a book is an unnatural act of communication.
Speaking to a person, or even to an audience, is an interaction. Very different styles are suited to an expert, a curious layperson, or a student on assignment … or to a one-on-one, a salon, or a lecture theater. When we do those things we get feedback – including lots of nonverbal feedback – in real time; and we tailor our message accordingly. Often the most important feedback comes from the look of the audience. We see whether we are engaging their interest, making them laugh, or putting them to sleep.
Writers, on the other hand, do their basic work in solitude. An author directs his or her message to … ummmm — well, the answer to that question is a crucial decision, which shapes the process of creation. In my new book, A Beautiful Question, I came to answer that question in an interesting and unusual way, as I’ll now explain.
A Beautiful Question evolved from something fundamentally different, namely a public lecture. The original lecture was titled “Quantum Beauty,” and it was delivered at Darwin College, Cambridge University. It was not a title, or a subject, that I chose. They assigned me that title when inviting me to give the lecture. I very nearly turned the invitation down out of hand, because the subject seemed so peculiar and esoteric. But Cambridge is a special place. Because of its glorious history – Newton! Maxwell! Rutherford! Dirac! Hawking! Darwin! Crick and Watson! – Cambridge is, to me, holy ground. It is also very beautiful. And I like challenges, as long as I feel I’ve got a fighting chance. So I didn’t turn the invitation down. Instead I asked what the audience would be like, and promised to consider it.
The audience, I was told, would be a mixture of young and old, town and gown, laypeople and scientists (and it was). In that sense it would a diverse audience. But in another sense it was a special audience – namely, the kind of people who would voluntarily spend an evening at Darwin College to listen to a lecture on “Quantum Beauty”. With that concept in mind, I began to think how I might try to rise to the challenge.
To my surprise, I found the subject and the project resonating in my brain. Two happy ideas transformed, to my mind, “Quantum Beauty” from a bizarre challenge into an attractive opportunity. First, I decided to sneak up on the “Quantum” aspect. It would appear as the climax of a narrative starting from prescientific ideas and leading through classical physics, with Beauty as the connecting thread. Second, I would show the Beauty that science reveals at the heart of nature, not just tell about it. I discovered new ways to visualize concepts, and brought in lots of images, to let an eloquent, elegant world speak for itself.
With those two guiding principles providing a framework, and with a “clear enough” picture of the audience before me, the lecture seemed to prepare itself, and it went well. Afterward, Darwin College decided to collect written versions of several lectures in the “Beauty” series into a book, and to include my write-up of “Quantum Beauty” as one of the chapters. I was able to do that very efficiently, because the performance had been recorded, and 3Play Media made an excellent written transcript. I just had to polish the language up a bit and insert the images, and the thing was ready to go. (I’d never worked this way before, but I highly recommend it!) I had to battle to keep the images, and to sacrifice their color, but since I’d arranged things so that the piece didn’t make sense without them, and I refused to re-write on a massive scale, victory was inevitable.
After finishing a project I usually have a satisfying feeling of completion, or at least of exhaustion. I move on to a new, fresh project, and I don’t look back. But in this case, that didn’t happen: Quite the contrary. New questions and ideas kept boiling up from the old ferment. I kept accumulating material, and it became clear to me that I should use it to write a book.
Why was this time different? The open-ended nature of the subject – that is, the beauty we discover at the heart of Nature – was a necessary condition for its continuing fascination, but not a sufficient explanation. (There are lots of open-ended subjects!) Certainly my immersion in imagery forms a big part of the answer. I’d considered many images that in the end I couldn’t fit into the lecture, and some of them were unforgettable. Humans are visual creatures. A big fraction of our brains specialize in image processing, and they can enthrall the rest. But I also found that specific ideas and images I had used kept rising into my consciousness, unbidden, and growing: Einstein’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem, the Platonic solids, Newton’s Mountain, the atomic Music of the Spheres, the dimensions of color, and others.
Something deep was working in me. It took me a while to figure out what that was. When I did it came as a profound, delightful surprise. I’d entered a real-life time machine.
I had returned to the charmed circle of visions and hopes that originally inspired me, as a child and an adolescent, to take up my career in science. Those recurrent images and ideas were my roots, exposed. In researching the history of Beauty in the physical world, I’d gone back to the sources of my own intellectual life. I was living the experience T. S. Eliot famously described:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And so, as I settled into writing A Beautiful Question, I knew my audience. It was myself, as a child and an adolescent. That person was full of questions. He wanted to know how the world worked. He hoped that such knowledge would bring power to his life, and meaning to his existence. There are many things I’d like to tell him, and to show him. Above all, this: The world does embody mind-stretching beauty; we can understand it; and coming to understand it is a joyful journey. Whether he would find my answers fully satisfying is doubtful, but I feel sure he would enjoy them, as he planned to do better. And he’d love the images.
Professor Frank Wilczek is considered one of the world’s most eminent theoretical physicists. He is known, among other things, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, the invention of axions, and the discovery and exploitation of new forms of quantum statistics (anyons). When only 21 years old and a graduate student at Princeton University, in work with David Gross he defined the properties of color gluons, which hold atomic nuclei together.
Professor Wilczek in 2004 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, and in 2005 the King Faisal Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Trustee of the University of Chicago. He contributes regularly to Physics Today and to Nature, explaining topics at the frontiers of physics to wider scientific audiences.