The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics

By Sikkema, Arnold E. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics


Sikkema, Arnold E., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


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. … 

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