• A Beautiful Question

  • Finding Nature's Deep Design
  • By: Frank Wilczek
  • Narrated by: Frank Wilczek
  • Length: 13 hrs and 44 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (173 ratings)

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A Beautiful Question

By: Frank Wilczek
Narrated by: Frank Wilczek
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Publisher's Summary

Does the universe embody beautiful ideas? 

Artists as well as scientists throughout human history have pondered this "beautiful question". With Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek as your guide, embark on a voyage of related discoveries, from Plato and Pythagoras up to the present. Wilczek's groundbreaking work in quantum physics was inspired by his intuition to look for a deeper order of beauty in nature. In fact, every major advance in his career came from this intuition: to assume that the universe embodies beautiful forms, forms whose hallmarks are symmetry - harmony, balance, proportion - and economy. There are other meanings of "beauty", but this is the deep logic of the universe - and it is no accident that it is also at the heart of what we find aesthetically pleasing and inspiring. 

Wilczek is hardly alone among great scientists in charting his course using beauty as his compass. As he reveals in A Beautiful Question, this has been the heart of scientific pursuit from Pythagoras, the ancient Greek who was the first to argue that "all things are number", to Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and into the deep waters of 20th century physics. Though the ancients weren't right about everything, their ardent belief in the music of the spheres has proved true down to the quantum level. Indeed, Wilczek explores just how intertwined our ideas about beauty and art are with our scientific understanding of the cosmos. 

Wilczek brings us right to the edge of knowledge today, where the core insights of even the craziest quantum ideas apply principles we all understand. The equations for atoms and light are almost literally the same equations that govern musical instruments and sound; the subatomic particles that are responsible for most of our mass are determined by simple geometric symmetries. The universe itself, suggests Wilczek, seems to want to embody beautiful and elegant forms.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2015 Frank Wilczek (P)2015 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Mr. Wilczek takes the reader on an expertly curated tour across 2,500 years of philosophy and physics.... One of the great pleasures of Mr. Wilczek’s book is his wide-ranging interest in the way the beauty he finds in symmetry appears across human experience.... He has accomplished a rare feat: Writing a book of profound humanity based on questions aimed directly at the eternal.” (The Wall Street Journal)

"A Beautiful Question is both a brilliant exploration of largely uncharted territories and a refreshingly idiosyncratic guide to developments in particle physics." (Nature)

“Relentlessly engaging…not only names but also wisely reframes a lot of basic concepts in modern physics.... Wilczek’s fearless reframing comes as a pleasant relief.” (LA Review of Books)

What listeners say about A Beautiful Question

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Goes beyond most pop science books

I had stopped reading popular science books because most of the new ones had nothing to say or they ended up in the land of woo. This book does neither.

This book can work for any audience. The artist will appreciate the beauty that the universe gives to us through its harmony of concordance, the obsessive reader of science books (as I used to be) will love the fact that the author takes one way beyond what they thought they knew and the PhD in physics will learn things he didn't know about the coherence of the universe.

In the beginning of the book he shows how the early Greeks established the comprehension of the world through numbers by first explaining music, and how the perfect Platonic forms relate to the real. At the heart of our understanding (and beauty) is the symmetry we use to understand the world around us. Every reader will end up absorbing his definition of symmetry: that which brings change without change.

He'll show how the first real jump in human understanding is when Pope Leo X ask Copernicus to fix that calendar so that Easter doesn't change relative to the seasons. Copernicus asked a question as a thought experiment "what if I were on the sun, how would that effect how I perceive the year on Earth".

The author takes the John Wheeler quote, "matter tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells space how to move". He'll show how that same phenomenon can be applied to all the fundamental forces of nature. Each of the forces of nature have a law of conservation associated with them. He'll go in detail on Emmy Noether and how she shows that (I like any book that gives Emmy Noether her rightful place in history). This is when the book starts to go way beyond all the other pop science books I've read over the years and never talks down to the listener.

He dissects Maxwell's equations and shows how they came to be and what they really mean. Ultimately, he explains Einstein's General Theory with the rule of relative perspective (Copernicus and Galileo) to the constant for the speed of light that pops up in Maxwell's equations. Once again the book is taking me places other science books fear to tread.

He'll go through the particle zoo and tell you what the Higgs Field really means and how the photon itself is modeled in an accelerator as if it did have weight. He'll tell the listener the problems with the standard model and how the extra dimensions needed for SUZY (string theory) allows for the solution to a host of standard model problems and how we are very close with the current levels of energy at the LHC in finding confirmations to this.

A couple of things. This book can be a difficult read. I would definitely recommend listening to it rather than reading it. Because, I if I had read it, I would have spent days on the up, down, charm quarks and how they go into the building the protons that build the universe. By listening to the book, I got the gist of the points and didn't overly dwell on the minutia. Another thing, this book is very comparable to Steven Weinburg's "To Explain the World". If you think this book is too difficult for you (that is you didn't follow what I wrote in this review), get his book instead. I recommend both books because they actually have a different philosophy on how they see the world. Wilczek would say from the fundamental models that describe the world emerge reality (e.g. atoms are an emergent property of our models). Weinburg would say that our understanding changes with our constricts we have There are differences in how each construct the structures underlying our universe ontologically. Each understand more than I ever will, I'm just fortunate that audible has made both books available to me.

We live in exciting times. The author quotes Keats, "that truth is beauty and beauty is truth" this book will show the listener why that is more true today than ever before.

22 people found this helpful

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beautiful

This book, at its core is about beauty in nature and the power of that beauty to serve as a criterion for determining if a theory is true. Can we use beauty as a guide to discover the laws of the universe? It's a great question. Wilczek points out the trouble the beauty criterion has caused from time to time, e.g. Kepler's beautiful, but wrong, theory about planetary orbits. In the end, Wilczek thinks beauty is a reliable indicator of reality.

The book reads like poetry and Wilczek is equally artists and physicist. He takes his reader back to the group of ancient thinkers, who are collectively known as Pythagoras and examines the symmetry and beauty in Pythagoras' Theorem. Looking at consonance and dissonance, he illustrates how the inner ear recognizes beauty as symmetry, e.g. we like a perfect fifths because our neurons like the beautiful math. Thus maybe math *is* beauty. Maybe the laws of nature *are* beauty.

Wilczek also describes the beauty of optics and of Newtonian physics in general. He provides a history of its shortcomings, which helps him usher in the beauty of Maxwell's equations, relativity, and quantum theory. His explanation of the standard model is wonderful and a good primer for those who are not familiar with the various particles.

Symmetry, and more importantly the breaking of symmetry -- from the Higgs nonzero field through the matter the Higgs creates, and onto the fractal nature of the many forms that matter takes -- seems to Wilczek to be fundamental to our universe. This is why the laws themselves would be expected to be beautiful in this way. I would have liked for him to talk more about networks, chaos, emergence, scaling and the like.

I would suggest readers who liked this book and wanted to keep thinking about these should read:

- Ian Stewart's Fearful Symmetry
- Lisa Randall's Warped Passages
- Geoffrey West's Scaling in Biology
- Albert-László Barabási's Linked
- John Kricher's Ecological Planet (One review called this basic. It is no longer basic when looked at through the lens of networks and complex emerging systems)
- Falkowski's Life's Engines
- Strogatz's Sync
- Scharf's Gravity's Engines
- Carroll's Particle at the End of the Universe
- Holmes' Secret Life of Dust
- Gleick's Chaos

13 people found this helpful

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As a self trained physicist in optical thin film!

What made the experience of listening to A Beautiful Question the most enjoyable?

After 45 years in the field of Vacuum deposited thin films he has made pythagoras come to life , and my lack of math skill come to life in Quantization of simple symmetry to supersymmetry in a simple math of x times y =y times x. but the quantum formula minus x times y= minus y time x and the square of that = 0 (excuse my math skills only high school algebra)After studying polarization for nearly 40 years, the use of ion beams and Rf power sources, high energy electron beams and the physics of these practices.,From schroeder cat in optics that has been proved to the simple wave front interferance on a plane surface.,I understood and related to every word.

What did you like best about this story?

In one of those life time experiences I was involved in the manufacture of the thin films and optics for a small optical table that was submerged in a atomic underground test.I received a call ,as I had guaranteed I would use no materials that would have atomic absorption capacity, but yet we had( gamma decay, not sure on this) or as is known as a hot element that had reacted to the atomic reaction. Thus my optical table was not able to brought to the surface for some period of calculated time based on our analysis and hypothesis and the resulting decay time resultsMy job and the engineer I did the work for was to figure out what the material was I used that caused this reaction. Low and behold I had used argon gas in the Ion beam sputtering process and the atoms had been implanted in the dielectric films. But we are talking 10 to the minus 6 mbar background gas with a partial preasure of 2,5 times ten minus 4 mbar background of argon flow through the Ion Beam gun. in practice under high energy with a packing density on the order of 10 to the minus eight in the film packing density I found this highly intriguing, That only a few molecules of argon gas could create this challenge.

What about Frank Wilczek’s performance did you like?

He ecsplicite going over information, and my 30 sec rewind allowed me to absorb 99 % of the info in space and time.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

A a newly spiritual person in his 60,s and I have just heard Frank mention meta in the book, and as all good physicists keep up on his trade and dreams for those Meta Materials on my radar , and as a participant in build a detector for High Frequency gravitational waves, the use use of all three cores to listen for HFGW,s bring our idea close to home

Any additional comments?

His analogy to music and physics fascinates me , as Light waves in a metamaterial of the right frequency and wavelength funny enough create sound wave.

3 people found this helpful

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Beauty and this book requires time to appreciate.

The body of the book benefits from the excellent glossary and notes, I especially liked the discussion of property spaces and local symmetry. "the physical world doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme'. I will read it again. Also very well performed.

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Maybe a good book, but an audiobook..?

I will start with what praise I have. The book certainly has its moments, and illuminated some concepts in interesting ways I had not previously considered. However, for this listener, it failed to satisfactorily answer its titular question, or indeed to even bother asking other related, and much more interesting questions.

On top of that, the narration, recording, and editing was just... not good. When the narrator is also the author, you would expect them not to stumble over their own words, but that is not the case here. Further, edits are painfully obvious, with no apparent attempt to match tone, level, performance, or the other attributes typically attended to by a moderately competent audio engineer.

Finally, the book concludes with over 4.5 hours of "Terms of Art," essentially a glossary read aloud. Ironically, it is read by a different narrator who, if responsible for the main text, may have radically altered my opinion of the book.

I'm sure Mr. Wilczek's contributions to the field of physics are of great value, but I'm not sure the same can be said for this particular contribution to the world of audio literature.

1 person found this helpful

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Difficult concepts explained effortlessly

Well written and well read, this audiobook allowed me to envision some very difficult concepts much easier than I have been able to before. Not an impossible read for an armchair enthusiast of science. I probably will listen again to give me firm grounding in these concepts. I might wish to pick the brain of the author on a few points and concepts.

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Antother added to the Particle Physics Zoo

Seems like a redundant addendum to similar other titles by the author with little exception of a Physics vocabulary chapter in the end.

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An amazing listen

This book is full of interesting history and mind blowing scientific synthesis. Listening to it can be almost meditative.

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A beautiful book!!

I am by no means a physicist, but the main body of the text was understandable to me , and very, very interesting . The appendix of physics terms was wonderfully helpful to me.

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  • LA
  • 12-04-18

A Wonderful Listen for This Quantum Physics Buff

As a lay person in the study of Quantum Physics, I have found this audiobook to be a beacon amongst the menagerie of readily available information.

I liked it the first time through, and each time since, for a running total of 5. it's perfect for driving and bedtime listening, .and I'm grateful to have it.