You’ll often hear theoretical physicists in the media referring to one theory or another as “elegant”. String theory in particular seems to get this moniker fairly frequently.
It may often seem like mathematical elegance is some sort of mysterious sixth sense theorists possess, as inexplicable to the average person as color to a blind person. What’s “elegant” about string theory, after all?
Before explaining elegance, I should take a bit of time to say what it’s not. Elegance isn’t Occam’s razor. It isn’t naturalness, either. Both of those concepts have their own technical definitions.
Elegance, by contrast, is a much hazier, and yet much simpler, notion. It’s hazy enough that any definition could provoke arguments, but I can at least give you an approximate idea by telling you that an elegant theory is simple to describe, if you know the right terms. Often, it is simpler than the phenomenon that it explains.
How does this apply to something like string theory? String theory seems to be incredibly complicated: ten dimensions, curled up in a truly vast number of different ways, giving rise to whole spectrums of particles.
That said, the basic idea is quite simple. String theory asks the question: what if, in addition to fundamental point-particles (zero dimensional objects), there were fundamental objects of other dimensions? That idea leads to complicated consequences: if your theory is going to produce all the particles of the real world then you need the ten dimensions and the supersymmetry and yadda yadda. But the basic idea is simple to describe. An elegant theory can have very complicated consequences, but still be simple to describe.
This, broadly, is the sort of explanation theoretical physicists look for. Math is the kind of field where the same basic systems can describe very complex phenomena. Since theoretical physics is about describing the world in terms of math, the right explanation is usually the most elegant.
This can occasionally trip physicists up when they migrate to other careers. In biology, for example, the elegant solution is often not the right one, because evolution doesn’t care about elegance: evolution just grabs whatever is within reach. Financial systems and economics occasionally have similar problems. All this is to say that while elegance is an important thing for a physicist to strive for, sometimes we have to be careful about it.
I always thought of Occams’s Razor and elegance as rather unscientific, since they suppose a bias – an asthetic really – for simplicity.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The nice thing about pure theoretical physics is that we’re dealing with mathematical properties, and math has a tendency to simplify things (look at my last post on Parke-Taylor for an example). So it’s a bias, but it’s towards something that we have good reason to expect to happen. If you try to generalize that to phenomenology (making a more realistic theory) then yeah, elegance might not be as valid.
Occam’s razor itself always seemed to me more like a philosophical principle, rather than a scientific heuristic. It’s the idea that you can’t conclude anything but the bare minimum consequences from an observation, not that you can suppose that reality is ultimately that bare minimum.