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The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics.

THE BEAUTIFUL INVISIBLE: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics by Giovanni Vignale. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 303 pages, illustrations, index. Hardcover; $35.00. ISBN: 9780199574841.

A common perception is that science requires following prescribed formulaic patterns of thought and behavior, whereas the arts emphasize originality and free thinking. But every practicing scientist knows otherwise: successful scientific work depends upon challenging authority, overturning ideas, and charting new courses. In The Beautiful Invisible, University of Missouri theoretical physicist Giovanni Vignale describes the importance of creativity and imagination in his field. This he illustrates via ideas and techniques in mechanics, thermodynamics, optics, and quantum physics, disparate subfields of physics which he draws together in intricate ways. And not only does he write about creativity and imagination, he frequently delights the reader by poetic references to the fine arts. For example, to relate theory and fact, he writes,
   When I think of theoretical physics, [I see] a structure
   closed on itself like the castle of Magritte's painting
   [The Castle in the Pyrenees]. At the bottom I see
   the heavy, rough mass of the real facts in need of
   explanation. At the top I see a graceful composition
   of roofs and turrets--the theory...The rock supports
   the castle, but the castle holds the rock and lifts it to
   a higher level ... A mysterious power keeps it suspended
   above the waves of the ocean: it is the power
   of internal consistency. (p. 9)


Vignale demonstrates not only a familiarity with a wide range of ancient and modern literature and art, but also an uncanny way of associating their themes and details with theoretical physics.

The Beautiful Invisible is certainly not a book on science and Christianity, but interestingly contains scattered unforced references to religion, often to Christianity in particular. After noting that it is nearly impossible to come up with a good theory in physics, he writes,
   Just as to many people the origin of life would be
   inexplicable without a Creator, so to most scientists
   the success of a theory would be inexplicable without
   an objective reality behind it. (p. 17)


Many aspects of Vignale's treatment of physics, and of the nature of scientific inquiry in general, resonate well with Christian perspectives in the natural sciences, such as his careful analysis of abstraction and formalism, and the nature of the laws of physics. For example,
   The laws of physics are never laws about the world
   as it is, but about the world in a certain limit, or under
   a certain idealization. (p. 27)


He connects the existentialism of Pascal's Pensees with an important concept of theoretical physics:
   The very presence of "I" at this particular instant,
   out of millions of years during which I could have
   existed, is a sort of miracle of broken symmetry. (p. 75)


This passage proceeds through an insightful analysis of the hierarchical organization of laws--affirming physics Nobel laureate P. W. Anderson's irreducibility idea that "every branch of science has its own set of fundamental laws...which cannot run contrary to the laws of the underlying levels [but are] impossible ... to derive [from them]" (pp. 77ff.)-- right to the miracle of the virgin birth and resurrection. He aptly relates this to the way in which the Second Law of Thermodynamics is emergent, as it "breaks the laws of mechanics ... without ever violating them" (p. 89).

The title theme of the book is that while the ultimate reality of the universe--the focus being on its physical features--remains finally invisible to us, there is a striking beauty and simplicity to the theoretical analysis that is aptly equipped for its description and explanation, without resorting to notions of antirealism, instrumentalism, or (Hawking's) conflation of model and reality. After the first third of the book, there is less philosophy and more physics, so the demands on the reader increase. Here Vignale discusses and creatively connects technical details (without the math) of relativity, electromagnetic waves, and quantum physics, culminating in illuminating discussions of quantum entanglement, teleportation, and computation, as well as superconductivity. At times, however, the narrative flags due to the author's desire to communicate just about everything on a topic. Nevertheless, the intrinsic value of the scientific enterprise is superbly highlighted as "the search for the truth having more value than the truth itself" (p. 293).

The Beautiful Invisible would be enjoyed both by those already familiar with modern physics as well as those seeking insight into the way in which science is as much a human cultural activity as the arts. Unfortunately, proofreaders missed a few annoying typos, and far too many of the 87 figures are incorrect or unclear, annoying experts and not guiding the newcomer well.

Reviewed by Arnold E. Sikkema, Associate Professor of Physics, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC V2Y 1Y1.
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Author:Sikkema, Arnold E.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2012
Words:791
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