Archive for February 13, 2014

The most beautiful equation?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 13, 2014 by telescoper

There’s an interesting article on the BBC website today that discusses the way mathematicians’ brains appear to perceive “beauty”. A (slightly) more technical version of the story can be found here. According to functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, it seems that beautiful equations excite the same sort of brain activity as beautiful music or art.

The question of why we think equations are beautiful is one that has come up a number of times on this blog. I suspect the answer is a slightly different one for theoretical physicists compared with pure mathematicians. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to invite people offer suggestions through the comments box as to the most beautiful equation along with a brief description of why.

I should set the ball rolling myself, and I will do so with this, the Dirac Equation:

dirac_equation

This equation is certainly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever come across in theoretical physics, though I don’t find it easy to articulate precisely why. I think it’s partly because it is such a wonderfully compact fusion of two historic achievements in physics – special relativity and quantum mechanics – but also partly because of the great leaps of the imagination that were needed along the journey to derive it and my consequent admiration for the intellectual struggle involved. I feel it is therefore as much an emotional response to the achievement of another human being – such as one feels when hearing great music or looking at great art – as it is a rational response to the mathematical structure involved. But it’s not just that, of course. The Dirac Equation paved the way to many further developments in particle physics. It seems to encapsulate so much about the behaviour of elementary particles in so few symbols. Some of its beauty also derives from its compactness.

Anyway, feel free to suggest formulae or equations through the comments box, preferably with a brief explanation of why you think they’re so beautiful.