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​Notre Dame Professor Discusses the Role of Beauty in Science

Providence, R.I.--Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, dean of engineering at the University of Notre Dame, discussed beauty and its role in science and creation when he presented the annual St. Albert the Great Lecture at Providence College.

In a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Creation and Science: The Role of Beauty, Elegance, and Our Ultimate Destiny,” Kilpatrick demonstrated how beauty helps people integrate knowledge and make discoveries in the fields of science and engineering. His lecture was sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies and held in Aquinas Lounge.

Kilpatrick presented examples of objects that people consider beautiful: snowflakes, a tree, a flower, the face of a baby. All have symmetry, a quality that St. Thomas Aquinas considered necessary for beauty, but closer examination reveals a defect in that symmetry--an element of “mystery” to which people are also attracted, Kilpatrick said.

In the earliest universities, people studied “the liberal arts,” subjects that “liberated” them to become fully human, Kilpatrick said. Created in the likeness of God, they became free to do as God does--to know and to love. The foundations of early study were the Trivium--grammar, rhetoric, and logic--followed by the Quadrivium--ways of understanding numbers through arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

The writer Dorothy Sayers believed that students were losing the Trivium, the foundation stone, by focusing too much on the “servile arts,” Kilpatrick said--studies associated with physical labor for which one would obtain a wage.

“A lot of students haven’t mastered logic, rhetoric, and critical thinking,” Kilpatrick said. “This is a big loss. Sayers said we were becoming experts in servile things, but not really completely educated.”

Kilpatrick discussed examples of beauty in mathematics and science. He explained the “Golden Proportion,” also known as the golden radio, and how its form can be found in the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and in the Fibonacci sequence.  

“Where do irrational numbers come from?” Kilpatrick asked. “It’s hard to imagine that we could invent irrational numbers. We say we ‘discover’ them.”

Mystery and the universe

To study science, civilizations needed to accept that the universe, though created by the divine, was not itself divine, and was intelligible, Kilpatrick said. And while the universe can be understood, it contains elements of mystery.

“All of science advances when it becomes, on the one hand, simpler, and on the other, I would argue, more mysterious,” said Kilpatrick. “Things are not simply getting simpler. They are getting simpler and more mysterious at the same time.”

The Big Bang “was not a bang, but a smooth, rapid, and uniform expansion of space,” said Kilpatrick. “In some sense, it seems a whole lot to me like creation from nothing.”

Kilpatrick also discussed Anthropic coincidences, a subject that famous physicists have written about for the last 10-15 years.

“It appears that the universe is so finely tuned that there really is almost no leeway in what the fundamental constants could have been” to sustain life, Kilpatrick said.

In 1982, when scientists first proposed the existence of dark matter, they were “booed offstage,” Kilpatrick said, but 30 years later, it is “physics dogma.”

“Meditate on that for a moment. We have never seen (dark matter), never done an experiment on it, and it makes up most of the universe,” said Kilpatrick. “The more we know about the physical world, the less we know. It speaks volumes to the mysteriousness of beauty.”

In his examples of things that have beauty, Kilpatrick included Christ on the cross, a “vision of truth, beauty, and goodness itself.”

“What Christ did on the cross, by saying, ‘I’m not into pleasure, I’m not into power, I’m not into false gods, I’m into emptying myself completely so you can have life’--this is real beauty. All other beauty is simply an imitation of this real truth, beauty and goodness,” Kilpatrick said.

The St. Albert the Great Lecture on Faith, Reason, and Science is one of four lectures sponsored annually by the CCDS. It was presented on the feast day of St. Albert the Great, the 13th Century Dominican friar who was an authority on the natural sciences and the most influential teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas.

--Vicki-Ann Downing

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